University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
John H. Wright
DOMAINE CHANDON: THE FIRST FRENCH -OWNED
CALIFORNIA SPARKLING WINE CELLAR
With an Introduction by
Maynard A. Amerine
Includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere
Interviews Conducted by
Copyright 1992 by The Regents of the University of California
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading
participants in or well -placed witnesses to major events in the development of
Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral history is a modern research
technique involving an interviewee and an informed interviewer in spontaneous
conversation. The taped record is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity
and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The resulting manuscript is typed
in final form, indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and
placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and
other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material,
oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete
narrative of events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in
response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved,
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement
between The Regents of the University of California and John H.
Wright dated January 20, 1992. The manuscript is thereby made
available for research purposes. All literary rights in the
manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to The
Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. No part
of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written
permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library of the University
of California, Berkeley.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be
addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library,
University of California, Berkeley 94720, and should include
identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated
use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal
agreement with John H. Wright requires that he be notified of the
request and allowed thirty days in which to respond.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
John H. Wright, "Domaine Chandon: The
First French-owned California Sparkling
Wine Cellar," an oral history conducted in
1991 by Carole Hicke , Regional Oral
History Office, The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley, 1992.
Copy no .
John Wright, circa 1991
WRIGHT, John H. (b. 1933) Winery executive
Domaine Chandon: The First French-owned California Sparkling Wine Cellar.
1992, x, 151 pp.
Establishing winery: Moet-Hennessey names Wright to head operation,
building winery, staffing, choosing grape varieties; role of Moet &
Chandon' s Maudiere in advising on blending, winery; growth of sparkling
wine sales; marketing innovations; mechanical riddling and harvesting;
present operations; opening of restaurant; methods of working with French
owners; founding Domaine Chandon Australia; expansion into offshore sales;
future of sparkling wine. Includes an interview with winemaker Edmond
Maudiere (b. 1927).
Introduction by Dr. Maynard A. Amerine, professor emeritus, Department of
Viticulture and Enology, University of California, Davis.
Interviewed in 1991 by Carole Hicke for the Wine Spectator California
Winemen Oral History Series, The Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California, Berkeley.
TABLE OF CONTENTS --John H. Wright
INTRODUCTION --by Maynard Amerine vi
INTERVIEW HISTORY viii
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION x
I EARLY DAYS 1
II MILITARY SERVICE AND EARLY WORK EXPERIENCE 3
U.S. Army, 1954: Germany and German Wines 3
Working for American Viscose Company 4
Arthur D. Little, Inc. ; Developing an Interest in Wine 7
Moving to Brussels, Belgium, 1965 11
In California, 1969 14
Growing Grapes in the Napa Valley 14
Drip Irrigation 18
Arthur D. Little: Investigation a Project in Brazil 22
A Study of the Wine Industry, 1970 24
III MOET-HENNESSY 31
Exploring the Possibilities 31
Further Conferences with the French 33
M. Poirier Tastes California Wines 37
IV DOMAINE CHANDON 41
Starting Up, 1972 41
A French Company in Napa Valley 42
Working With the Trefethens 45
Choosing the Grape Varieties 48
Support and Involvement of the French Owners 50
Champagne or Sparkling Wine? 54
V GROWTH OF DOMAINE CHANDON 62
Building and Equipping the Winery 66
The Decision to Use the M6thode Champenoise 68
Horizontal Tanks 70
Some Aspects of Harvesting 71
The Cuvees 76
More on Presses 79
The Domaine Chandon Restaurant 81
The Visitors' Center and Museum 84
Riddling and the Very Large Machines 85
Fred's Friends 89
More on Marketing 90
Domaine Chandon in Australia 98
Managing a Winery 100
The Debut of Panache 102
Buying the Shadow Creek Winery 103
Viticulture Experiments 105
Classic Methods/Classic Varieties Society 107
Difference in Perspective of Large and Small Wineries 111
Gazing Into the Crystal Ball 113
INTERVIEW WITH EDMOND MAUDIERE, ENOLOGIST
I BACKGROUND 116
II DOMAINE CHANDON 118
First Responsibilities 118
Grape Varieties 119
Building the winery 121
In the Winery 123
The Very Large Machines: Riddling 133
The Wines 139
TAPE GUIDE 145
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the
Regional Oral History Office, was initiated in 1969 through the action
and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, a state marketing
order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In 1983 it was
reinstituted as The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
with donations from The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. The
selection of those to be interviewed is made by a committee consisting of
the director of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley;
John A. De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, the statewide winery
organization; Maynard A.'Amerine, Emeritus Professor of Viticulture and
Enology, University of California, Davis; the current chairman of the
board of directors of the Wine Institute; Ruth Teiser, series project
director; and Marvin R. Shanken, trustee of The Wine Spectator
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on
California grape growing and winemaking that has existed only in the
memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the
early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are
of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of
not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about
the industry from late in the last century until Repeal. There is a real
paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although
some commercial winemaking did continue under supervision of the
Prohibition Department. The material in this series on that period, as
well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine industry
in subsequent years (as yet treated analytically in few writings) will be
of aid to historians. Of particular value is the fact that frequently
several individuals have discussed the same subjects and events or
expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from his own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in
the University libraries at Berkeley and Davis, the California State
Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made its
collection of in many cases unique materials readily available for the
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Willa K. Baura and is under the administrative supervision of The Bancroft
The Wine Spectator California Winemen
Oral History Series
Regional Oral History Office
486 The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed July 1992
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry. 1974
Leon D. Adams, California Wine Industry Affairs: Recollections and Opinions.
Maynard A. Amerine, The University of California and the State's Wine
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies.
Philo Biane, Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit
Industries . Inc . . 1972
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry. 1986
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the
Development of the California Wine Industry. 1942-1989. 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente , and Andrew G. Frericks, The California
Wine Industry During the Depression. 1972
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology. 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies , Rebuilding Schramsberg: The Creation of a
California Champagne House. 1990
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is Mv Life. 1985
Making California Port Wine: Ficklin Vineyards from 1948 to 1992. interviews
with David, Jean, Peter, and Steven Ficklin, 1992
Alfred Fromm, Marketing California Wine and Brandy. 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry. 1935-
Miljenko Grgich, A Croatian-American Winemaker in the Napa Valley. 1992
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley. 1986
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry.
Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture. 1988
Morris Katz , Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management. 1944-1988. 1990
Legh F. Knowles, Jr., Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership.
Horace 0. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi , California Grape Products and Other
Wine Enterprises. 1971
Zelma R. Long, The Past is the Beginning of the Future: Simi Winery in its
Second Century. 1992
Richard Maher, California Winery Management and Marketing. 1992
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Valley.
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry. 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards: The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy. 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara
Valley Winery. 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery.
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry. 1985
Michael Moone , Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World.
Inc. . 1990
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987. 1988
Harold P. Olmo, Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties. 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist. University of California. Davis.
John A. Parducci, Six Decades of Making Wine in Mendocino County. California.
Antonio Perelli-Minetti , A Life in Wine Making. 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry. 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Law and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines. 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry. 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony. 1949-1989: Recollections of a
Third-Generation California Winemaker. 1990
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian. a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandy Maker. 1988
Andre Tchelistcheff , Grapes. Wine, and Ecoloev. 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers. 1974
Louis (Bob) Trinchero, California Zinfandels. a Success Story. 1992
The Wente Family and the California Wine Industry, interviews with Jean,
Carolyn, Philip, and Eric Wente, 1992.
Ernest A. Wente, Wine Making in the Livermore Valley. 1971
Albert J. Winkler, Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971). 1973
John H. Wright, Domaine Chandon: The First French-owned California Sparkling
Wine Cellar, includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere, 1992
INTRODUCTION --by Maynard A. Amerine
The interview with John Wright gives the pertinent facts of his early
history: schooling, a period in the army, and early positions with several
companies, ending with Arthur D. Little, an important "think-tank" company.
But most of the text covers how Wright got into planning, building, and
operating a sparkling wine plant in Yountville in Napa County. It is a succes
d'estime, and Wright tells the story with a flourish and justifiable pride.
Fortunately for Wright, the start of the sparkling winery in 1972 was
preceded by a 1968-1970 study of the California wine industry. An interview
arranged by Arthur D. Little in Paris in March 1972 with Moet-Hennessy led to
further meetings with executives of Moet & Chandon (the Champagne company) in
August 1972. By the end of the year, planning had begun on a sparkling wine
plant to be built in Yountville in the Napa Valley. The actual final contract
is dated March 25, 1973. One concludes that Moet was lucky to get Wright, and
that he was lucky to have such intelligent executives at Moet & Chandon in
He tells the story with gusto and pride from the early years at the
Trefethen winery to the planning and construction of the Domaine Chandon
winery and restaurant. There were many problems, which Wright took in his
stride. It is important that his French enologists were so careful in
selection of the varieties of grapes to be used. However, it is clear that
after the start, Wright was running the show, though with an ear to his bosses
in France and with due attention to the advice of the two French enologists
who periodically came from France for tasting and making the blends. It is
significant that many new procedures and equipment were developed at
Yountville under Wright's enthusiastic direction and with the cooperation of
his staff. He gives specific praise to several of his staff.
One concludes that Wright was a canny executive but a joy to work for.
Managing a French- owned company in California must at times have been a
headache, but you would not discover this from Wright's text. This tells one
something important about the enthusiastic and thoughtful way Wright directed
the whole affair.
The second interview in this volume on the history of Domaine Chandon
is with Edmond Maudiere. Maudiere is a French- trained enologist at Moet &
Chandon who came to Domaine Chandon from time to time as an advisor after
1972. He tells us about the climatic, varietal, and operational problems here
from the point of view of a French- trained enologist primarily interested in
the production of sparkling wines.
Since Maudiere was in charge of making the blend, he had a very large
influence on the character of the wines. As he frankly says, Domaine Chandon
wines are not the same as the Moet & Chandon wines produced in France. And,
as he says, they shouldn't be. Amen.
During the interview, Maudiere discusses many aspects of grape growing
and sparkling wine production methods in California and how they differ from
those in France. He is obviously proud of his work at Domaine Chandon and of
the changes in procedures that he has been responsible for. And he should be
Domaine Chandon was the first large-scale investment in the California
wine industry by a foreign company after Repeal. It did not cause any great
excitement in the Napa Valley, as I recall. But it did attract a great deal
of interest in France and Spain. Within a few years, at least four French
sparkling wine producers had invested in wineries making sparkling wines in
California. They were followed by two Spanish-owned sparkling wineries. All
are still operating.
It would not be easy to determine what specific influence Domaine
Chandon had on each of these companies, but it surely cannot have been small,
as far as their inception is concerned.
Maynard A. Amerine
St. Helena, California
INTERVIEW HISTORY- -John H. Wright and Edmond Maudiere
Domaine Chandon, Napa Valley maker of sparkling wine, lists an
impressive number of California winemakers "firsts": first French-owned
sparkling winery; first North Coast winery to use mechanical harvesting
at night; first to use reserve wines for consistency of style and
quality; first to develop mechanical riddling. The list goes on. In
order to document the advent of this sparkling wine house in California,
John H. Wright, president and chairman of the board of M & H Vineyards,
Inc. (Domaine Chandon), and Edmond Maudiere, consulting winemaker to the
Napa Valley winery and chef de caves of parent company Moet-Hennessy ,
were interviewed as part of the Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral
Wright, an energetic man whose zeal and dedication to his work show
clearly in his oral history, began his career as a market development
specialist, later becoming a management consultant for Arthur D. Little,
Inc. He grew a few grapevines and made a little wine as a hobby. His
three -volume marketing study on the future of the wine industry attracted
the attention of Moet-Hennessey in the early 1970s, and Wright was asked
to head the company's new venture in Napa Valley, a sparkling winery (as
it calls itself), which would open in 1977 as Domaine Chandon.
The project was built literally from the ground up, with Wright
overseeing the purchase of grapes and vineyards, the wine production, and
the construction of the winery. Wright was everywhere; the president
thought nothing of working on the bottling line, packing down cardboard
in the dumpster, or waiting tables at the Domaine Chandon restaurant, in
addition to his duties as host to visiting titled Frenchmen from the
parent company. He himself characterizes his style of management as more
one of leadership than of management, less structured as to organization,
but with an emphasis on the importance of the people employed at the
Help in abundance came from Moet's Edmond Maudiere, not only a
chemist, microbiologist , and master blender but an architect as well.
His contribution to the development of the winery proved crucial in many
areas, from the building of the winery to blending the cuvees , and he
continues to advise winemaker Dawnine Dyer in the blending of the wines,
which are made in the traditional methods champenoise. Their latest
effort resulted in the creation of the grande cuvee, etoile, which made
its debut in late 1991.
Wright was interviewed on two days, April 10 and May 6, 1991. The
first interview took place in a conference room that was serving as his
office during a renovation. The second was in the winery itself, where
there was a small office on the second floor.
The interview with Maudiere was conducted on September 11, 1991,
when he was in California for the crush. It began in an office and
continued on a tour of the winery, during which he discussed the history
of the winery as it affected the present operations. For example, he
described the method of tracking the shipments and, in the bottling room,
told of the development of the VLMs (Very Large Machines) for riddling
automatically nearly 4,000 bottles at a time. He offered some
observations about the differences between the Napa Valley and the
Champagne area of Epernay, France, in viticulture and winemaking. At
every step, M. Maudiere demonstrated his total immersion in the art of
making sparkling wine and his enthusiasm for finding the right ways of
doing it in California. The innovative spirit he brought to Moet &
Chandon Champagne -making has contributed to the development of Domaine
Chandon's distinctive sparkling wines.
Wright and Maudiere reviewed their transcripts and made minor
changes. Grateful thanks go to Diane Sol, Director of Communications at
Domaine Chandon, who coordinated interview plans and provided tours and
background information to orient the interviewer. She and Virginia Davis
found photographs to illustrate the volumes.
This series is part of the ongoing documenting of California history
by the Regional Oral History Office, which is under the direction of
Willa Baum, Division Head, and under the administrative direction of The
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Regional Oral History Office
Regional Oral History Office
Room 486 The Bancroft Library
University of California
Berkeley, California 94720
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INTERVIEW WITH JOHN WRIGHT
I EARLY DAYS
[Interview 1: April 10, 1991 ]#// !
Hicke: I'd like to start this morning by asking you when you were
Wright: I was born on July 28, 1933.
Wright: In Buffalo, New York, at Children's Hospital.
Hicke: Were you raised in the Buffalo area?
Wright: No, I was fortunate to have spent only four cold winters there
[laughs]. Then we moved to Illinois. We lived outside of
Chicago for about seven years, and then we moved to Virginia.
My father I call laughingly an itinerant chemical engineer.
He was a chemical engineer who worked mainly in viscose
processes, at one time with the DuPont Company, and they
tended to switch people around, so he lived in a few different
Afterwards he worked for American Viscose Corporation.
I was about eleven or twelve when we moved to Fredericksburg,
Virginia, so my formative high school years were spent there.
Then I went to Middletown, Connecticut, to Wesleyan
University, where I got my Bachelor of Arts; my major was in
chemistry. Wesleyan had at that time- -and probably still- -
] This symbol (////) indicates that a tape or segment of a
tape has begun or ended. For a guide to the tapes, see p. 145.
such a devout liberal arts philosophy that they never even
gave a B.S. in those days; you got a Bachelor of Arts even if
you majored in sciences.
II MILITARY SERVICE AND EARLY WORK EXPERIENCE
U.S. Army. 1954: Germany and German Wines
I got out of Wesleyan in 1954, and since that was pretty much
during the Korean War, I decided to volunteer for the draft to
get it over with quickly. I had the very good fortune of not
going to Korea but going to Germany and being stationed right
in the Rhinegau district in the Mainz.
It was in Geinsenheim, a little town up the river from Mainz.
At that time the 2nd Armored Division was stationed there. I
wound up as a medic when I got into the army, and it was the
medical battalion that was in Mainz. It was probably one of
the earliest times that I really started to get interested in
wines as a hobby. My oldest brother, who was in the Second
World War and then took his discharge in Vienna for about
three or four years, came back with a rather avid interest in
wines, primarily Austrian wines. That perhaps had an
influence on me, but when I got over to Germany and was
stationed right by the vineyards, it really sparked my
interest and I guess made wine a hobby.
Mostly just tasting at that point?
Yes, mostly just tasting. [laughs
I didn't make any then.
We were stationed there, too, for a while, and I very well
remember that the fall came around, and they would have wine
festivals up and down the "weinstrasse . "
Wright: Yes, up in Rudesheim and that area. I was there about '55,
'56. I can remember you'd get about five marks to the dollar,
and I lived like a king on a corporal's pay. [laughs] I used
to play a fair amount of golf; I played on the college team.
Shortly after I got to Germany, I had the good fortune to get
on the division golf team; so I spent that first summer really
not as a soldier but as a golfer, which was quite marvelous.
We went down to Garmisch, over to Berlin and Frankfurt and
places like that. That was great.
By the time I had come back from the "circuit," my whole
battalion was transferred to a place called Baumholder, which
is in the middle of nowhere. It's one of the few places in
Germany where they can run tanks around without destroying
everything. I unfortunately had to move out there, and that
was not too pleasant, other than the fact that it wasn't too
far from Bernkastel, so when I could I would get over to
Bernkastel and got to know the Mosel a little bit. But that
was certainly not as nice as being in Mainz /Wiesbaden, where
there were a lot more things to do. I took in the Wiesbaden
Hicke: Wiesbaden is a lovely town.
Wright: Yes, and it wasn't damaged like Mainz was. You go back today,
and Mainz is almost unrecognizable.
Hicke: Yes, Mainz was pretty well flattened. Have you been back?
Wright: Yes. One of our cousin companies is Sichel Sohne, Peter
Sichel's company, which makes Blue Nun and also quite a number
of regional Rhine and Mosel estate wines. Their main facility
is outside of Mainz, so I've been there two or three times.
Working for American Viscose Company
Wright: When I got out of the army, I got back to the States and
fairly soon found a job in the packaging business in
Hicke: This was American Viscose Corporation?
Wright: Yes, working out of Philadelphia. That was quite exciting and
interesting, because it was just at the point when
supermarkets were really growing, and the whole concept of
self-service merchandising was coming into its own. People
were recognizing that packaging was a very integral part of
marketing. American Viscose was subsequently bought by FMC
Hicke: But this was before that?
Wright: Yes. It was interesting, too, in that it taught me a little
bit about technical obsolescence. Cellophane was basically
invented by a Frenchman, whose name I forget right nowthe
whole viscose process, but I think principally cellophane- -in
the twenties. It came to the States, and in fact my father I
think was at the first plant that was built at Niagara Falls
and Buffalo with French technology. It was a DuPont plant.
Cellophane sort of got its origins in the Depression.
Of course, during the Second World War not much happened
industrially with a lot of things, but it really boomed after
the war. American Viscose was then called Sylvania Industrial
Corporation, located in Fredericksburg. They asked my father
to come down to be the technical director. They were the
second producer of cellophane after DuPont. Business was
really booming when I started coming into the thing because of
all the supermarket packaging requirements. But looming out
on the horizon was the whole area of petrochemicals- -
polyethylene, polypropylene, high- density polyethylene, all
It was one of those cases where it was pretty darned
evident, if you really sat back and looked at it, that the
days of cellophane were numbered, just because of the
fundamental costs of regenerated cellulose versus
petrochemicals. The company, rather than really understanding
this and doing what they could probably have done at that
point, particularly with polypropylenes , just decided, "Well,
economics- -we can't make the same return on investment in
plastics that we can in cellophane," so they just put their
heads in the sand. And that company doesn't exist anymore.
It literally went out of business; the plants all shut down.
That was the major employer in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Fortunately- -I guess it's fortunately; it depends --
Fredericksburg has now become a bedroom community for
Washington, so the economy of Fredericksburg is actually
significantly better today than it was when American Viscose
It was really kind of interesting, and I realized how
quickly, through technical obsolescence, a booming industry
all of a sudden, poof, went nowhere, which made me feel a
little bit better about wine, because I don't think wine is
going to be obsoleted very soon by something else. [laughs]
Hicke: I love that display down there in your waiting room that shows
that wine goes back a long, long way.
Wright: In some ways it might not be quite as glamorous as a high-
tech, very fast-changing industry, but it has its advantages.
Hicke: Did your chemical background provide you any help in this
Wright: Oh, absolutely. I was in the market development group, which
I later found out was supposed to have been a sales training
program. I was one of the first people. They were thinking
at that time that rather than hiring sales people- -people who
had a knack for sales but no real technical background- -they
would see what happened if they could get some people who had
some technical background and put them into sales. There were
two of us, actually- -the other fellow was Bob Ridgeway- -who
started at the same time and had our degrees with chemistry
maj ors .
Hicke: I would say that was probably a good idea.
Wright: I think so. Actually, though, for me, I got so interested in
market development because I felt it was so much more creative
to come up with ideas new ideas for packaging and new
products within the spectrum, and helping potential customers
work on package concepts- -that finally I declined going into
sales, because I didn't think I ' d be a very good salesman
anyway. I don't know if it was that as much as it was that I
was more interested in marketing and market development than I
was, really, in the sales.
I stayed at Avisco [American Viscose Company] about four
years. I started in '56, and I guess I left in '60 or '61.
As I said, it was quite fascinating, because the packaging
industry is fascinating, particularly in those days.
Hicke: It was kind of a new concept, wasn't it?
Wright: Yes, it really was --the importance of packaging as part of a
marketing-merchandising spectrum. But I also liked the
technical parts --the protection part: water vapor
transmission rates, oxygen transmission rates, and all this
was kind of fun.
Hicke: Was radiated food--?
Wright: Just starting. In fact, in Natick, Massachusetts, the army
was really starting to get into that. Radiated food was very
interesting because it could use flexible packaging as opposed
to metal cans and that sort of thing, and basically that's
what we were in, the flexible packaging business. So we
started to do some things there.
Arthur D. Little. Inc.: Developing an Interest in Vinemaking
Wright: What happened, I guess, was that I was getting a little bit
bored and looking potentially for change. I guess I saw an
ad- -I forget what happened, but it must have been an ad- -from
Arthur D. Little, which is a consulting company in Cambridge,
Mass., for somebody who had a good background in packaging,
particularly flexible packaging, and a technical education. I
went and interviewed for that and was very fortunate in being
hired by Arthur D. Little. The fellow who actually hired me,
Peter Baker, had decided to move from headquarters in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, down to New York to start a group.
He felt he could start a kind of package -oriented group with a
bit more freedom being away from headquarters than he could
being at headquarters.
They really gave me the choice of either going into what
they called the industrial management division of Arthur D.
Little in Cambridge, which was primarily a group of people who
were chemical engineers and worked primarily in the chemical,
plastics, paper, packaging industries, or going to New York.
Since I really felt that Peter was pretty much my mentor in
many ways, I went to New York. We just had a small group, and
I worked in New York for about four years for a lot of
different clients, mostly pulp and paper, glass, metal,
flexible packaging, et cetera.
Hicke: What were you doing?
Wright: Some of it was fairly straightforward. Market research:
we've got a new product; is there a market for it? In
retrospect, it was interesting because it also taught me
something. We took a rather interesting approach to doing
"market research" for technical products. Rather than just
saying, "Well, demand is this, growth is this; therefore this
is what the future is going to be," we really worked pretty
hard on developing what the properties were of a potential new
product or an existing one- -polyethylene , we'll say- -and then
trying to match it up with potential end uses. We did our
forecast more on the basis of seeing where new end uses could
come in, which were not predictable based upon the past. It
certainly taught me that trying to predict the future based
purely on the past isn't always that accurate. In fact, if
changes occur on the supply side of a particular industry,
demand could be very, very much affected.
Hicke: Are you sort of saying that you were not just looking at
whether the market is there, but the possibilities for
developing the market?
Wright: Possibilities for developing the market. I'd say, really, if
you go into consumer type products, try to look at what I call
consumer need rather than want. You ask, "What would you
buy?" "Well, I want this, and I want that." But they can't
tell you what they want if it isn't there. Whereas if you can
understand what their needs are, then conceptually you can
come up with a product that they could never tell you they
wanted, because it didn't exist. But you come up with it, and
you create a new market, if you will, or an extension of a
market. None of that is generally picked up in what I call
conventional market research.
Hicke: You must have been on the cutting edge of that type of thing.
Wright: Oh, it was kind of fun. I enjoyed it. Actually, it carried
forward into Domaine Chandon, which I'll maybe get to a little
Hicke: Yes, I'd like to hear about that.
Wright: Quite a bit later on I did more feasibility studies and
strategic studies, and then I was transferred to the European
office, in part because I wanted to go to Europe- -I'd done
some projects over there --in part because I spoke pretty good
German in those days, so I had some language capability.
Hicke: Before we get to Europe, though- -you planted some grapes?
Wright: Oh, yes, that's true. My gosh, I can't overlook that. My
actual winemaking follies [laughs] or whatever, really kind of
got started when I lived in Philadelphia and was working for
Avisco. I was browsing through the public library, called the
Free Library in Philadelphia, which is a lovely library. I
was really in the cookbook section; I was sort of interested
in looking at things, because 1 like to cook. Lo and behold,
1 came across, in that same area- -in fact, 1 almost remember
the Dewey decimal number a book on home winemaking by a
fellow named Hedrick [professor at Cornell] or something like
that. I devoured that, took it home, and started saying,
"Well, this is great stuff," and I decided I would make some
That fall I managed to convince two of my colleagues at
Avisco to join me in this adventure. I located some grapes
out near Atlantic City, New Jersey, and with, I must confess,
virtually no prior planning in terms of equipment or how we
were going to do all this, we charged off in Jim's station
wagon to this vineyard. They were picked grapes; we had
ordered them ahead. They were called supposedly champagne
grapes. I think they were the Adams grape, fairly foxy, but
not as foxy as a Concord or a Niagara. It was a pink grape.
We loaded them onto the station wagon- -with fruit flies
all around- -and we got to Jim's house. He was the only one
with a house; I lived in an apartment, and Bob lived in an
apartment, so Jim was the victim. He had a house with a
cellar, and we got the stuff down there. Literally, we didn't
even have a crusher, but we found a neighbor who, lo and
behold, had a crusher. So we crushed the stuff into a barrel.
We didn't have a press. I mean, we were trying to make white
wine with no press. I said, "What we'll do it's not the
ideal, but I think I can design a press and get the stuff
done, but let's ferment it on the skins, and then we'll press;
it'll have less pectin."
We got it started, and Jim went off on a business trip.
I told his wife, Nancy, "Look, what you've got to do is knock
the cap down at least twice and maybe three or four times a
day." She said, "Oh, yeah, yeah." Well, about three days
later she called me in the office and said, "John Wright?"
[bright and bubbly] "Hi, Nancy, how's it going?" "You get
over here right away. My whole house smells of vinegar." So
I went out, and, oh, the house reeked of vinegar. I said,
"Gee, this is great. Let's decant it and bottle it up." She
said, "I want it out of here!" So I took it out in the yard
and dumped it. That was my first experience, which wasn't too
In the next two or three years I would go down to the
market; we used to call it the Italian market in Philadelphia.
They had grapes coming in from California. The real premium
grape was the Cucamonga Zinfandel; that's what you paid a
little bit more for. I made some pretty good wine from those
grapes. It was kind of fun.
When I moved to Arthur D. Little, I moved from
Philadelphia to Wilton, Connecticut, and bought a place with a
couple of acres of land. In between all this I was reading
every wine book I could find. I picked up this book by Philip
Wagner, who was really the father of the Franco -American
hybrids; he was the one to promote hybrids in this country. I
thought, "This is really interesting. I can grow some
grapes." From his nursery, Boordy Vineyard, which was in
Maryland- -he had both a winery and a nursery--! bought some
Seyve Villard and Baco [noir] , I guess, and proceeded to plant
those. Oh, I had three or four hundred vines, I guess.
The year that they would have borne fruit, I was
transferred to Brussels, so I never did- -actually , a friend of
mine did go in one year and make wine from it, so I did have
that wine when I got back from Brussels.
Did you have a press?
Oh, by that time I had everything. Yes, I finally got smart
[laugh] and bought the right kind of equipment. It was only
the first year that was as disastrous as it was.
How much wine would you make?
Oh, a hundred or a hundred and fifty gallons.
That's a lot for a home.
Two or three barrels.
Meanwhile, were you drinking wine for dinner and other
What kinds of wines were you drinking?
Wright: [laughs] That's interesting. In Philadelphia, which is a
state-store situation, there wasn't an enormous variety, by
any means. My house wine was a Zinfandel from the East Side
Winery in Lodi , California, an independent co-op winery. My
recollection is that it was a very good wine, and it was about
sixty -five cents a quart. Probably if I had that same wine
today, I would have a somewhat different view of it, but at
that point in time it was a quite acceptable wine. In terms
of acceptability, if it were duplicated today it probably
still would be; it's just that I don't think I would probably
like it quite as well as I did.
Hicke: Most of these wines were sweet wines?
Wright: Yes, I was considered a bit of an oddball. I did a lot of
proselytizing, and very soon it became a habit; you get
interested in and like wine, and all of a sudden you become
the expert. Colleagues at work would come around and say,
"We're going to have a dinner, and we're going to have wine.
What would you suggest?"
Hicke: You developed your market. [laughter]
Wright: I would say that more often than not we would have wine with
Hicke: Okay, you're about to move to Brussels.
Wright: It was originally going to be Zurich, Switzerland, but then
the Swiss really, started cracking down on work permits for
foreigners, so Arthur D. Little's European headquarters moved
from Zurich to Brussels.
Moving to Brussels. Belgium. 1965
Hicke: What year was this?
Wright: This was 1965.
Hicke: What were you doing when you went over there?
all my clients were European; they were not generally American
companies. That kind of gave me an insight into both
similarities and differences that exist between European and
American companies, and even within Europe there are some big
differences between British companies, French companies, Dutch
companies, German companies.
Hicke: Did you have all those as clients?
Wright: Oh, yes. Italian, Swiss, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish,
British, French, Belgian. No Spanish; I never had a Spanish
client or Portuguese --oh, I did a little bit, but not very
much. I was in a sense doing sort of the same stuff, but I
was doing it in a different environment. That was really
Hicke: You were still bottling wines?
Wright: There are grapes grown in Belgium in hothouses, beautiful
table grapes --these huge Royales , they call them, big, black
grapes that they packaged sort of like the Japanese package in
styrofoam and beautiful sorts of things and sold them for a
fortune. They obviously didn't make very good wine, but the
table grape business was fairly large; that and endive were
two rather important agricultural activities on the outskirts
Hicke: Belgian endive, of course.
Wright: Yes, which the French call chicon, and the Flems call it
witloof, meaning white leaf.
But up in the northern end of Brussels, by the Card du
Nord station, there were two or three companies that brought
in wine in barrels from Bordeaux and Burgundy mainly. There
were really some good ones, like Vosne-Romanee; I remember
that Vosne-Romanee was great. So I'd go there and buy barrels
and take them home and bottle them. I saved a lot of money by
doing that. Besides, it was fun. I guess I got rid of my
winemaking urge by bottling barrels that I bought.
After about five years in Brussels, even though I was
traveling all over the place, I really got fed up with the
climate. The climate in Northern Europe is dismal, as you
well know. Just day after day of--
Wright: --clouds and worse. The chairman of the board of Arthur D.
Little at that time was General James Gavin, who died only a
year ago. He was a really incredible man, who had been the
head of the 82nd Airborne Division in the Second World War at
the age of twenty- five. Jumping Jim, they called him. He
basically got into West Point by having gone into the army
first. He came from a family that was not at all well-to-do
and managed to work his way through the army into West Point.
He became under [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower the
head of research and development for the army and had a major,
major falling out with Eisenhower and [Secretary of State John
Foster] Dulles, claiming in his mind that wars of the future
were really not going to be nuclear, and the amount of money
and time we were spending on building up this whole nuclear
concept should be reassessed, and that wars of the future were
going to require highly mobile forces. [laughs] He was dead
on! He was absolutely correct.
He became quite outspoken about this, and as a result
Eisenhower, I guess, demoted him. He resigned and left the
army, and Arthur D. Little hired him to be the chairman. The
guy was not only a great figurehead but actually was a very,
very brilliant man, not only in terms of military things but
in other things, too. In fact, I well remember that after I
moved out here to California, during the Vietnam War, we were
all in a meeting in a conference room, and one of us asked
him, "Jim, what do you think of the war?" God, he went to the
blackboard and laid it out, and you could see we were in the
craziest thing we could ever be in. Really, in about a half
an hour he turned me from being either somewhat pro-Vietnam or
at least neutral to being vehemently anti-the war, just
listening to him. It was incredible how he could succinctly
boil all this down and explain it to you.
Hicke: And nobody was listening.
Wright: Nobody was listening, that's right. [General Matthew]
Ridgeway was on his side; I think there were three or four ex-
In the meantime, though, he was ambassador to France
under [President John F. ] Kennedy and really came back to
Arthur D. Little in part because he couldn't afford to be
ambassador to France. Being ambassador to France or the U.K.
normally requires a lot of private money, and Jim didn't have
Anyway, Jim was over in Brussels for a trip, and I went
to him and said, "Look, Jim, I'm really fed up with the
climate, and I'm kind of getting bored, so I think I'll just
call it quits." I didn't have any idea what I was going to
do. He said, "No, no, don't do that. Why leave Arthur D.
Little?" I said, "Well, I don't know; I guess maybe you're
right." He said, "You want to go to London?" I said, "I'll
take a look at that." I did, and I sort of looked around and
decided I really didn't want to go to London; even though it
had certain aspects that Brussels didn't have, it still had
the same climate. Also, London has always been horrendously
expensive in housing, even then, relative to what people
Putting it all together, one of the options was San
Francisco, and I figured, "Ah! That will get me out here [to
California], and I can start to pursue what I've always wanted
to do, and that's buy a few little acres of land and start
growing grapes." So that's what I did; I transferred to San
Hicke: Was this in '72?
Wright: No, this was 1969. I was in Brussels from
No, '72 is another sort of a landmark.
65 until late '69.
In California. 1969
Growing Grapes in the Napa Valley
Wright: While I was still in Brussels I had taken a trip to San
Francisco prior to the formal acceptance of me in the San
Francisco office and my decision as to whether I wanted to
really do it or not. One of the senior staff members in the
San Francisco office, a fellow named Dick Lynn, was
negotiating to buy a piece of property up in the mountains of
St. Helena from a fellow named Al Menasco. Al had a vineyard
there with a bunch of different varieties- -Grenache , even some
old Alicante, and he was getting into Cabernet and Pinot noir,
and he had Pinot blanc and Camay. A beautiful, beautiful
property, very hilly and tough to grow grapes on, particularly
in those days before drip irrigation and so forth.
Al was fairly elderly then- -I think he was in his late
seventies --and was a pioneer in the aircraft industry; there's
a Menasco engine that is very famous . He was a real buddy of
Clark Gable and a lot of Hollywood people. Clark used to
spend time up there at the Menasco ranch.
Dick managed to get enough partners together, and I
became one of those partners, to purchase the property from
Al. That started me off right away being at least partially
involved in vineyards. We'd go up on the weekends.
Hicke: Is this Pickle Canyon?
Wright: No, this was called Lyncrest Vineyards, which is now owned by
a friend of mine who was a partner even then, Mike Mars ton,
and it's now called Marston Vineyards. It's up on Sulphur
Springs Road going all the way up the mountain.
I guess I still had itchy feet, partly because Dick was
somewhat autocratic about who could do what in the vineyard;
so I decided I really wanted also a piece of property myself.
In fact, I did sell my partnership to Dick in order to get
some money to buy my own property.
Hicke: If you're in a partnership like that, can you pick the grapes?
You say he was somewhat autocratic; are you talking about
running the vineyard?
Wright: I wanted to do certain things, and I guess I felt I didn't
have as much involvement as I would have liked to have. Also
it was a bit farther to go from Mill Valley, and I thought I
would like to find something down valley a little bit but
still in the mountains. I was convinced that mountain
vineyards really did have an edge on quality.
Meanwhile I had- -according to him- -lured out to Napa an
old school friend of mine. We went to college together, and
he went on to McGill University and went into psychiatry. His
name is Herb McGrew. I convinced Herb to come out and be a
partner with me in the vineyard. Herb was at that point
practicing in New York and kind of thinking of going to New
Mexico and maybe growing grapes, among other things. So I
steered him away from New Mexico, and he came out and had no
problem becoming a staff physician at Napa State Hospital.
Herb and I got together, and we bought this property in
Pickle Canyon in the spring of 1970, so it didn't take very
long. I remember I was in Brazil, and we were bidding on
something else in a probate court, and we lost that, which in
retrospect was good that we did. Then this came up.
Hicke: Were there vines there?
Wright: No, it was an old prune orchard, and we proceeded to get about
ten acres cleared. We might have even planted it in 1970, we
moved so fast. If not, we planted in '71; I can't recollect
right now. We managed to find some roots tock at the last
minute, which was the wrong kind, but that's all right,
[laughs] In those days St. George was always recommended for
hillside vineyards because the St. George has a root structure
that goes right down. Hillside vineyards in those days were
notable for being stressed during bloom period because there
was no water, no irrigation. Therefore the St. George was
deemed to be better in this drought condition. As it turns
out, St. George is a pretty lousy rootstock in terms of bloom;
because it's so vigorous at bloom time, you do tend to get a
set that's much less regular than with A x R or some of the
other rootstocks now--S04, et cetera.
Hicke: Did you go to somebody at Davis?
Wright: More the county farm advisor, which is connected, obviously.
When we first came here it was Jim Lider, and then Keith Bower
came after that. We were pretty rank amateurs, but we managed
to get five thousand roots planted, about ten acres worth.
Hicke: Who is "we"?
Wright: Oh, Herb and his wife, my wife then, and some other friends.
Particularly important, up the hill --up Mt. Veeder, sort of on
the top, past Mayacamas and Lokoya Road, there was what was
really a commune of what would then be called hippies, and a
little farther on was a place called The Farm. I met somebody
who met somebody, and basically folks from The Farm helped us
out a lot, too, on our payroll. They were primarily
responsible, along with us, for getting the vineyard planted.
Hicke: Did they have any experience- -or did you, for that matter?
Wright: No, rank amateurs. The soil conservation service came and
helped us lay out the contours , but other than that it was
pretty much reading the book and doing it. It worked,
[laughs] I'd do it differently today, but it worked.
Actually, one or two of those people still work for Chandon
now. Count Robert Jean de Vogue, when he came over for his
first visit and saw them working- -this was when [Moet &]
Chandon was looking- - "You know, I think they are retired
Hicke: What did you plant?
Wright: My initial plan was to plant Cabernet and Merlot. I thought
Merlot was going to be a hot grape. It was hardly ever
planted then, so there wasn't much around. I was right, and I
wish I had planted more. My next door neighbors at that time,
Mike and Arlene Bernstein, had bought and had planted a
vineyard which today is Mt. Veeder Winery. Mike had planted
primarily Cabernet. We were talking, and he says, "Why plant
Cabernet?" The curious thing is that Mike was an antitrust
lawyer [laughs], and there he was trying to say "Don't plant
Cabernet; we'll be too competitive." Basically that's what he
was saying. I thought that was really wonderful.
He convinced us, or basically we convinced ourselves
that maybe we would just do- -what we wound up doing was
Zinfandel and Merlot, and we did a little bit of Chenin blanc,
which I subsequently grafted over with Chardonnay. To this
day I don't know why I decided I ' d do any Chenin blanc. Then
in what was supposed to be all Zinfandel, 10 or 12 percent of
the cuttings turned out to be the Camay beaujolais clone of
Pinot noir. To this day we have to go through the vineyard
twice and pick that out.
Hicke: They were just mixed in with the rest?
Wright: Yes, supposedly certified Zinfandel. I won't tell you where
they came from. They didn't come from Davis. They came from
a winery that had a supposedly good certification program.
Hicke: Other than advice from your neighbor, how else did you decide
what to plant?
Wright: Basically I planted what I liked. [laughs] That's about as
scientific as you can get. I planted what I liked as wine.
Hicke: You knew Zinfandel from way back.
Wright: Yes. I thought Mountain Zin would be really good, and it is.
It's just that up until the White Zin boom it would have been
more profitable had I planted everything in Merlot, or if I
had planted half Cabernet and half Merlot, or if I had planted
Chardonnay earlier. But that's hindsight.
The Merlot at Pickle Canyon Vineyards has always been in
great demand. The problem with Merlot is that everywhere, but
particularly, it seems like, in hillsides --and maybe it's
partly the St. George rootstock, too- -it doesn't set very
well; it has very loose clusters. I don't think I ever got
more than two and a half tons to the acre.
Wright: At that time there was a really interesting technological
development taking place, and that was drip irrigation. I
immediately got interested in that and fascinated with it, and
I think I was probably one of the first to put in drip
irrigation for vineyards. Drip irrigation, more than any
other single thing in my opinion, has revolutionized the
economics of growing grapes in places like on a mountainside
or down at Carneros , where you've got very shallow soil and
you don't have the holding capacity of water like you have in
the mid Napa Valley.
In those days Rene di Rosa was the pioneer in Carneros
at Winery Lake [Vineyard] . Rene was lucky to get a ton to an
acre in those days in Carneros, and a couple of others- -Buena
Vista was a little later and were getting very low yields in
Carneros. Typical yields on the hillsides would be a ton and
a half or two tons to the acre, but with drip irrigation we at
Chandon are now getting five, five and a half, sometimes six
tons to the acre in Carneros, and we're getting, oh, four or
four and a half tons up in the mountains .
Hicke: Can you explain that a little bit?
Wright: It's really because drip irrigation, if you do it at the right
time, prevents stress on the vine in May. If the vine gets
stressed just about flowering time, it tells itself, "Hey, I
don't want to propagate myself, so I've got to watch myself
and not set too much seed." Being able to keep the vine
unstressed during bloom and into set makes an enormous
difference on final yield. Once the crop is set, then you
want the vine to go into some stress; you don't want to over-
On a hillside, drip irrigation is about the only
practical way of irrigation; because of the contours and all
that, overheads don't really work, and of course flood
irrigation wouldn't work. In Carneros, in theory overhead
would work, but the water requirements of overhead are five,
six, seven times as much as drip, and we don't have much water
in Carneros. You really need to conserve on water, and of
course drip really does that. Plus the beauty of drip
irrigation is that it puts the water where you want it; it
doesn't create extra humidity, so you don't have the same
mildew and insect problems and that kind of thing. It's a lot
more efficient, but it also puts it where you want it.
Really, you can control everything so much better with drip
For young vineyards, it's like night and day. If you
start a brand-new vineyard, even in mid Napa Valley here,
where you've got rich soils and so forth, and you say, "I'll
just sort of hand water, or I won't water," it's going to take
you at least a year or two years more to bring that vineyard
into production. Whereas with drip it would really save you
at least a year.
Hicke : How did you learn about it?
Wright: I just got fascinated. I guess I was at some agricultural
thing that had nothing to do with vineyards. I think it was
related to orchards or orange groves or something like that,
and I saw this thing. It was like, "Wow, this is really
interesting!" The original company was down in San Diego that
brought the Israeli technology here; basically it was an
Israeli invention. Of course, it's gone through enormous
improvements in terms of the economics of the performance and
Hicke: Do you recall the name of chat company?
Wright: Dripeze was the name of it. It just came into my mind. Those
original emitters, which I bought in '70 or '71, still work.
Everybody thought they were going to get clogged up in a
matter of four or five years .
Hicke: What are they made out of?
Wright: Those I think were ejection-molded out of polypropylene,
attached to polyethylene tubing. The tubings held up, too,
for twenty years.
Hicke: Were other growers getting into this?
Wright: They were starting, yes. It was all about the same time, but
I think I was one of the first to have a drip system.
Hicke: You installed those in '71?
Wright: Yes. I think even today, in going to other projects, it seems
to me that with all the water that's used in the Central
Valley, if somebody at some time or even now would come up
with a plan that would really motivate growers to use drip
irrigation rather than flood and overhead, lots of acre feet
of water could be saved. But that's another issue.
Hicke: Yes, that's a big part of what drip irrigation is about from
the standpoint of the rest of the state. You didn't have any
irrigation system before you put this in, right?
Wright: No. What people did in those days, particularly if they were
in the hills, you'd go by with a water trailer on the tractor,
and by hand- -oh, it was really a pain. It wasn't very
effective; it was very labor-intensive, and not nearly as
precise as drip. As I say, without drip irrigation, some of
these hillside vineyards and Carneros vineyards just wouldn't
exist because the economics wouldn't be there. So it has
really revolutionized that and in turn has opened up
viticultural sites that have tremendous quality that wouldn't
have been opened up.
Hicke: Such as?
Wright: I just think that hillsides do produce wines of greater
elegance than vines grown in very rich alluvial soils like
much of the Napa Valley itself. And we see that at Chandon.
Without a doubt, year in and year out our best Char donnay- -and
this is for sparkling wine, of course- -comes from our Mt.
Veeder property. It just has more elegance. The Chardonnays
that we grow in Carneros have much fruitier character, which
for us is a bit of a problem for sparkling wine, because it's
a little too fruity, whereas the mountain grapes don't show
that at all. In fact, mountain Chardonnay as a table wine,
when it's young and hasn't had much bottle -aging, to most
people isn't as attractive as, say, a Carneros Chardonnay,
which has all that fruity content to it.
But when the vines age , the mountain Chardonnay that is
five or six years old really has an elegance that's very, very
intriguing. It's beautiful.
Hicke: Do you associate elegance with dryness and aging
characteristics? Can I pin you down on that?
Wright: I think I associate it with enough fruit to have flavor, but
not over-fruitiness; you're not bowled over from the
fruitiness. Maybe elegance is the wrong word.
Hicke: It's a good word, but it's a little hard to pin down.
Wright: It's more subtle; let's put it that way. You're not bowled
over by the fruit. It's there, but it's laid back, and
because it is laid back other elements come into play as well,
so it's more subtle and more complex. That's been my own
experience. I don't know about others. I do think there is
something to be said for qualities you get with shallower
soils and drainage. I think in mountainside vineyards it's
mainly a question of shallow soils plus drainage. I think in
the Carneros area it's a combination of the cooler climate
plus shallow soils that produce a different sort of grape, a
different wine from the same grape variety. The number of
acres planted in Carneros and on the hillsides- -although the
hillsides are still pretty small- -wouldn' t be there without
drip irrigation. It just wouldn't have been economic.
Of course, what it does to land values is pretty
amazing, too. Well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Hicke: In the discussion about soil versus climate as the most
important factor, where do you stand?
Wright: I am really honestly convinced that it's totally synergistic;
it's not one or the other. They're both working. Therefore,
if you say, "Champagne has chalk soil; Champagne is a
wonderful wine. Therefore, to make a wine like Champagne you
should look for chalk soil," doesn't make any sense, because
the chalk in Champagne works because of the climate. The
climate is very severe in the Champagne region, very cold and
rather rainy, and the chalk is like a sponge and is taking all
that down. The chalk is acting not only in its mineral sense
but is creating a climate; so it's a very synergistic
relationship. Chalk soil here wouldn't necessarily be
beneficial, because we don't have the same conditions of
climate. And there are other examples.
The people who are totally concerned about terroLr or
soil, if I were to be a little cynical- -certainly
mezzoclimates can be if not duplicated rather closely
simulated. Let's say there are other places in the world that
have climates virtually identical to Bordeaux- -some parts of
California, some parts of Australia, et cetera. It's to one's
advantage, if one were in the lead, like if you were a French
appellation committee, to say it's really soil, because soil
is really urtduplicable, it's so unique. You can get this
wonderful taste, and the soil is what makes the best.
Wright: Therefore, by making it virtually unique, or making it seem
unique, you can command a higher price for your grapes.
That's really what a lot of that is all about. Some people
think that the appellation contr61ee rules were made by some
sort of generous group of people who decided that the consumer
deserves some guaranteed quality, but that had nothing to do
with it. The appellation contrdlee laws were set up to
restrict the planting of grapes in order to keep the prices
up. It's just as simple as that.
Arthur D. Little: Investigating a Project in Brazil
Hicke : Let's get back to your work for Arthur D. Little in San
Francisco. When you came out here were you still working with
Wright: Yes. I came out, and there wasn't any real obvious client
base out here, although there was a forest products industry,
so actually there was some base there. I guess in a sense it
was a somewhat risky move, because I pretty much had my own
quasi specialty and no real resources around me to speak of.
But that didn't bother me, because I was really interested in
growing grapes .
Hicke: You just had to support your habit.
Wright: That's right. Shortly after I got to San Francisco a client,
International Paper Company, which was one of the few American
companies that 1 did work for in Europe, had reorganized
itself, having been "McKinsied, " we called it- -a consulting
company called McKinsey did a lot of reorganization work
(Arthur D. Little in those days didn't do much of that; we
were more technology-based) - -and they decided that they should
become internationalized. Even though their name was
International Paper, it started originally because they had
newsprint mills up in Canada.
So they bought a couple of companies in Europe, and then
they formed a whole international division on it's own and
started to look for opportunities to grow internationally.
That was some of the work I did for them in Europe; they were
looking for a couple of acquisitions, so I got that work.
They tracked me down here in San Francisco, and they
wanted to look at South America. I was quite flattered that
they really wanted me to be the project leader, even though I
wasn't geographically ideally located for that.
Hicke: Where was their headquarters?
Wright: They were in New York.
I started work there, and it quickly boiled down- -we
took a quick look at Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, and wound
up with Brazil as being the most interesting to start. So I
started traveling a lot to Brazil, pursuing this project. The
project got kind of dragged out, because they kept changing
what they wanted to do. Well, actually the way they wanted to
enter Brazil was in a very low investment and low profile, but
there was no opportunity. We started there, and we worked our
About a year and a half or close to two years later--!
wasn't working full time but sort of off and on- -we got all
the way to reforestation as the way to approach Brazil in
terms of the pulp paper and packaging industries. It started
out in terms of printing paper for packaging materials, and
that was a low investment, but everybody was in it; there
wasn't much opportunity.
We started following the whole chain backwards. Because
of Brazil's economic structure, et cetera, low-capital
investments were more attractive and easier than high-capital
investments. Yet the need was for industries that needed
high-capital investment, and that certainly is the pulp and
paper industry, so in terms of an opportunity, that's where it
was. But even going in and, say, producing pulp, in order to
produce pulp you had to have the trees , and the trees were not
there in all that great an abundance. There was a tremendous
amount of trees up in the Amazon, but that's a whole other
It just so happened that at that time the Brazilian
government had these fantastic tax incentives to go in for
reforestation, and eucalyptus grows incredibly there; you can
take your first cut of eucalyptus in six years. So we finally
wound up recommending that they go into forest management and
use other companies' tax money to plant the trees. Once those
trees started growing, then they could put up a pulp mill with
some other investors and all that.
It was great; it was just wonderful! Except that by the
time we finished the study there had been a total upheaval in
the top management of IP [laughs]; they had thrown out the old
president, they'd gotten in a new one, and everything had
changed. So they never pursued that, but another company did
later on with great success.
It was a lot of fun. It was a very interesting project,
because, among other things, I really had a very distorted
view of South America and what it was like. Working in Brazil
and working with a lot of Brazilians --in fact, I did spend
some other time down there teaching in Belo Horizonte as a
part of the contract, teaching engineers and economists how to
do project management. I guess it's fair to say I fell in
love with the country. It's a very dynamic, interesting
A Study of the Wine Industry. 1970
Wright: So that was fun. The only problem is that it kept me out of
the mainstream of activities in San Francisco, and when that
project was finally over --and I had done a couple of others --
and I got back sort of full time in the San Francisco office,
I really didn't have much work to do. As a consultant this
kind of bothers you. It doesn't affect your pay, but you know
that you want to be billable; that was my role in life. So I
decided to do a multi-client study of the wine industry,
because that was really my hobby. This was around mid- 1970,
and it was pretty obvious that wine was changing, that there
was a definite shift over to table wine from fortified wines,
wine consumption was increasing in the table wine category,
and situations like that.
I managed to design an outline of a study and a proposal
and managed to get enough clients; I think there were about
six clients to support the study, and we went ahead with the
study, which was called Wine America.
Who were the clients that supported it?
I'm trying to remember. I guess it's not a secret anymore.
Robert Mondavi was one; H.J. Heinz ; Philip Morris; Schlitz;
Coca-Cola Bottling company of New York, which at that time
owned Mogen David [winery] and Tribuno [vermouth] , which is
now owned by The Wine Group ; and Quaker Oats . The larger food
companies were saying, "Let's take a look at this to see if
it's for us . "
You've got a couple of wineries, a cigarette company, a beer--
Well, Philip Morris in those days was diversifying; they were
in the beer business already. But, yes, it was larger
companies who figured they'd better have a look at this.
The findings of that study were that we felt that what
we called the premium- -in those days we kind of broke up the
wine into premium, standard, and nontraditional . The
nontraditional wines were Cold Duck and Boone's Farm Apple;
they were called pop wines at that time. They were the
booming ones as well as the premium, both premium California
and imported wines , but not moving nearly to the same extent
as the pop wines were.
And in between were the standards?
And the standards; they were fairly steady. Even in those
days they were fairly steady, even in the table wine category.
Later the white jug wine started to grow, but at that point it
wasn't growing all that much.
Hicke: What was in the standard category?
Wright: Oh, hearty burgundy, Carlo Rossi, genericwe call them jug
vines today, but in those days 1 guess there were a fair
number in half gallons, et cetera, but a lot were in bottles.
Hicke : How did you do the research?
Wright: There were three parts to the study. One was to assess the
market, and some of that was looking at numbers, and some of
it was talking to the trade- -retailers , restaurateurs, et
cetera, and to the wine folks themselves.
Hicke: Somebody like Darrell Corti?
Wright: Yes. I don't remember if I talked to Darrell specifically,
but sure. Another part we did, we commissioned an outside
consumer research corporation called Family Opinion, Inc.- -I
believe they were called that in those days. They have, you
know, panels of eight thousand. Basically we did some
consumer research on wine buying and consumption behavior. We
did a first screen of about eight thousand households, and
then got down to a couple thousand households in a longer
Hicke: In California?
Wright: Oh, no, throughout the country. Then there was a third part,
what we called the economics. One whole part of the study was
examining the cost of developing vineyards. We had actual
cost models, and I think we were one of the first to do those.
It was just about the time that computers were starting to be
able to do some of this stuff at a reasonable cost. Of
course, the desktop computer wasn't even around then, but
there were time-share terminals. We had a pretty sharp guy at
the Arthur D. Little office in San Francisco who was pretty
good at this stuff, so he chunked out a whole lot of financial
Hicke: Again, was this nationwide?
Wright: We were really looking at establishing a winery in California.
Then we had different kinds: we had a standard winery, a
nontraditional winery, a premium winery, and in each case
different levels in production and sales and so forth. Our
final conclusions were --and this was by '71, based maybe on
'69 and '70 data; I think '70 was our last data- -that the
growth prospects for the premium table wine sector were both
good and rather predictable; that the standard wine business
was maybe on the order of 3 or 4 percent a year. Not as much.
The other, we thought, was 15 to 20 percent over the
subsequent five years, say.
And that the nontraditional business, or the pop wine
business, was completely unpredictable. Even though every
indication at that point was that these wines were going up
and up and up, there was Just enough feeling, about as
intuitive as anything else, that they really weren't going to
last. We were correct in that, because they really took a
nose dive shortly thereafter. In those days, out of eleven
million cases of sparkling wine, seven or eight million were
Hicke: So sparkling wine was something you looked at?
Wright: Looked at, but it wasn't the focus of the study. Partly it
wasn't a focus because once you got out of Cold Duck there
wasn't much. So really Cold Duck was part of the
nontraditional segment. No, sparkling wine wasn't a big issue
in that study.
I guess it turned out that our projections of growth
were pretty much correct quite accurate, actually. I think
where we made a mistake was that we felt that because of the
capital investment involved, new entries into the market would
not be that prevalent. What we totally missed was the romance
factor of people getting into the business despite the heavy,
up -front investment, that there are just enough people out
there, some individuals and some companies, who have talked
themselves into getting into the business because of, in many
cases, what I think is the romance factor. It's a great
business, you know. It's got a lot of romance to it. It is!
It's a fun business.
Hicke: That's interesting, because you essentially got into it
because you liked it.
Wright: [laughs] I know. Yes, I was one of the guilty ones.
Hicke: It's interesting that you didn't realize there were that many
others like you.
Wright: I must say that we advised our clients- -basically the ones who
were in the business, like Mondavi as I recall, our main
recommendation to them was to develop more vineyards, because
we thought vineyards were going to get in short supply. For a
while we were incorrect, but then we became correct, so I
think generally we gave them fairly good advice.
Hicke: Is that why Mondavi was in it- -to see what the projections
were for his own growers?
Wright: I think so. Yes, I think Bob's main interest was- -I don't
know; I should ask him one of these days. I kind of suspect
that was about the time he had taken on some new partners- -the
Sick's Rainier [Brewing] Company. 1 think they wanted some
outside opinion about this business. Essentially our
conclusions were that "If you are in the business today,
particularly if you are in the upper end of the business" --
which Mondavi was- -"it's got a lot of future to it. It's
going to require a lot of money, but it's a good business to
be in competitively." I'd say the only surprise in that --and
I don't know to what extent it has really hurt Mondavi; I
don't think it has- -is that today there are a good many more
competitors in the same price range as Mondavi than I would
have ever believed in those days; just because of the
economics I felt they wouldn't do that.
Those companies who were not in the business, we
basically advised not to get in because we didn't think the
economics of starting from scratch would make a lot of sense.
On the other hand, there were many opportunities. If they
found a winery or two that were large enough to be interesting
to these large companies, then an acquisition might not be a
Hicke: So not to really start from scratch, but if they could go in
and acquire a going concern it would be okay?
Hicke: Did you also work with Lou [Louis R. ] Gomberg?
Wright: Very much, yes. In fact, Lou worked on that study with me as
an outside consultant. Oh, yes, I forgot about Lou; I
shouldn't have done that. Lou did quite a bit of work with
Hicke: What types of things did he do?
Wright: He dug up a lot of numbers because he had access to them, and
of course he'd been very active in negotiating and buying and
selling wineries, so he had some input on that. That's right,
Lou was really a member of the team. A great guy.
enjoyed my friendship with Lou and his wife.
Hicke: Did you come out with a one-volume report?
Wright: Well, three volumes; they were pretty big. [laughter] So
what do you want for $20,000? Of course, $20,000 in those
days was a lot of money.
That report was printed in about March of '72, and just
about that time I got a call from Paris. Having done the
study, it's a classic consultant situation: you become an
expert by doing something, right? Educate yourself on your
clients' money [laughs]. I'm being a little cynical. But by
having been the project leader for this, then I was recognized
within Arthur D. Little, at least, as being the wine industry
expert. I guess, in all fairness, I probably deserved it.
I got a call from Paris from Michel d'Halluin, who was
the manager of the Arthur D. Little office there. Michel I
had known because of my work in Brussels, and he said that
Arthur D. Little had been engaged by the Banque Nationale de
Paris, the BNP, the biggest bank in France, to look at
investment areas of interest for French companies. They
decided to structure this project by going to an input-output
computer model. Lo and behold, the wine industry was one of
the industries that the input -output model had preliminarily
tagged as potentially being of interest to a French company.
I said, "I don't think you need a computer input-output model
to determine that, but what the hell, that's all right. So
what do you want from me?"
He said, "Well, I'd like you to write a little report
on--." He says [with French accent], "Now, John, only three
days of your time, because I do not have a very big budget."
I said, "For $20,000 you can buy the whole thing." "No, no,
John, you must remember our old friendship." I said, "All
right, Michel, I guess in good conscience I can write a very
general overview without prejudicing the clients who paid good
money for this. I can't get into the details, because that
would not be ethical, but I feel confidant that I can write an
overview generally." I wrote a fairly general overview of the
situation as I saw it.
At that time I was pretty heavily engaged in a project
for one of the Unilever companies in Europe. They had a
packaging division, several companies located in many
different countries of Europe that produced packaging
materials. The whole project was really what were they going
to do with these companies in the future in terms of direction
and organization and all that? It was a fun study.
Exploring the Possibilities
Wright: So I was going over to Europe quite frequently. That July, on
my trip over, Michel called and said, "Look, while you're here
I've set up appointments in Paris with some potential
investors." The reason the BNP, by the way, had commissioned
the study was that they were developing branch banking
facilities in the U.S. They later bought the Bank of the West
here in California. There is a BNP bureau here in San
Francisco as well, but they really finally enlarged by buying
the Bank of the West. They figured that if they were going to
have these operations in the state- -branch banking; I guess
that's the right word- -if French companies were there, they'd
naturally be attracted to the BNP as a primary lender.
In July they set me up with meetings, and there were BNP
people there. I guess there were two or three meetings. One
was with a fellow named Guy de la Serre, who was then and
still is secretary general of Moet-Hennessy . Guy actually is
from the family Mercier, which is a company that is part of
the Moet [Hennessy Louis Vuitton] group. I spent a couple of
hours with Guy going over what I'd written and answering his
-Then I met with two other groups. I met with Pernod
Ricard, the pastis people. Pernod Ricard had just merged, and
they were looking to expand their activities and possibly get
into the wine business. They subsequently bought Austin-
Nichols in this country, which is really the bourbon business
more than the wine, although they had some wines.
Then I met with a company called the Salin du Midi.
They're a very fascinating company. Their original primary
business was solar salt down in the Mediterranean area at the
mouth of the Rhone River.
Hicke: Solar salt?
Wright: Yes, like that stuff that we make --dried salt. They still do
that, but the amount of land that they own- -not where they
were evaporating the salt, because it would be too salty, but
somehow they wound up owning thousands of hectares of land.
This was way, way back. That land is almost pure sand, and
when the phylloxera hit Europe, the phylloxera bug doesn't
exist very well in sand, so they were able to plant vines on
this soil without having to graft them, and they developed a
huge wine business; they have been referred to as the Gallo of
France. Their brand name is Listel, and they make very
acceptable wine at that price level and have very good
technology. So they were somewhat interested, too.
Well, as it turned out, of the three people, the one who
was really interested enough to make the next step was Moet-
Hennessy. I don't think I met Alain then. I got word from
Michel later- -I believe it was that August- -that two
executives from Moet-Hennessy, Alain Chevalier- -who didn't
have a title, but essentially he was president of Moet-
Hennessy and the holding company; I think he was called
general administrator, or admLnistrateur general- -and Bertrand
Mure, who was the managing director of Moet & Chandon, the
Champagne group, were coming over in August to visit me in San
I brought them up to the Napa Valley and showed them
around. I remember one night they stayed at Silverado, and
Alain and I were taking a little stroll around the golf
course. He said, "I'm really interested in doing something.
I think it's time we started a California venture." He
described some of the reasons why they were interested, which
I'll get to in a minute. He said, "No matter what the market
is--" I told him up front that I had studied the market. I
said, "The sparkling wine market at this point is a little bit
of champagne here, some sparkling wine here, and Cold Duck is
the main thing. I do believe there's an opportunity for
growth in this business if somebody comes in with the right
product at the right price and so forth, but we're starting
with a small market." The whole methode champenoLse business
at that time, which was largely Korbel [F. Korbel & Bros.
winery], Kornell [Cellars], was only, I think, a hundred
thousand cases. We knew pretty much that we were going to
have to start with a capacity of about a hundred thousand to
make it interesting.
So I said, "The market is not there, but I think it can
be developed." He said, "Fine." He said, "Besides, for me
the really important thing is to get the right person to run
it," and he said, "I think that could be difficult." I said,
"Geez, with Moet & Chandon behind it, there 'd be 150 totally
qualified people lined up to get the job." [laughs] I didn't
know he was testing me; he was very subtle.
You were just having your conversation about looking for
someone to head up this new winery.
Wright: Right. At that point it was left that on my next trip to
Europe, I should come by for a further conference, not only
with Alain and Bertrand but with the bank. It was just left
somewhat loose, but, "We'll work it out when you come over
next." I said fine.
Just about this time, which would have been August of
'72, I had kind of decided that I was so intrigued with the
winery business, and really grape growing more, I think, that
if I resigned from ADL I could probably stillbecause they do
use a lot of outside consultants if you've got a track record
for special things- -figure on maybe getting work from Arthur
D. Little half time or even less, and even with that I
probably wouldn't starve to death.
Further Conferences With the French
Wright: I had already informed ADL then, in August, that I was going
to resign, but that I'd complete the Unilever work, which was
fine with them. That happened, and then it must have been a
week or two later that I got a call from Michel D'Halluin
again from Paris. He said, "Look, when are you coming over
for Unilever?" I think it was October or something, and he
said, "Well, Moet wants to see you, and we have to have the
bank there," and blah, blah, blah. I said, "Look, I have
officially resigned from Arthur D. Little. If you want to pay
me for a day or two, I'd be delighted to .do that." He said,
"Oh, yes, yes, no problem." So I said, "Fine."
I came over, and I remember I called Michel from
Brussels; he was in Paris. I said, "Is everything set up?"
[quickly] "Oh, yes, yes," and he was very, very excited.
"Mr. Chevalier has invited you to his house that evening." I
said, "Oh, that's nice." "Well, it's more than nice; it's
very important." You know, he was giving me this- -I didn't
think it was such a big deal.
I went down [to Paris] Thursday night, and on Friday we
met officially at the Moet-Hennessy headquarters in Paris and
went through the whole thing again about the wine business and
where it was going and so on.
Hicke: Where is their headquarters?
Wright: It's changed now. It used to be at the Rue Tremoille, but
shortly thereafter it moved to Avenue Hoche.
Alain was rather short, curt, and somewhat agitated by
the meeting. You could see he was just impatient, I guess is
the best word. He didn't quite cut the meeting short, but it
felt a little bit like it was shortened. We broke up, and he
said, "I'll see you tonight." I said, "Wonderful." I was
walking out with Michel, and he says, "Now, look, when you go
to his house tonight, I'm sure he's going to want you to do
some more work. I'd just like some assurance from you that
Arthur D. Little will be involved." I said, "Well, of course.
Anything I would do as an individual consultant would only be
through Arthur D. Little, because obviously he made the first
contact, and I wouldn't think of doing anything other than
that." Then I said, "But I can't imagine that that's going to
happen . "
"Oh, yes, it is. I guarantee you, you'll have a nice
dinner, and after dinner he'll take you into another room and
talk about doing some more work." I said, "All right, Michel,
maybe you're right." And, sure enough, that's exactly what
happened. We had a delightful dinner with Alain Chevalier,
his wife, and two other couples who were friends. Actually,
one was the brother of John Haskell from Dillon, Read [& Co.,
Inc.]; I don't think I'd met John then.
After dinner was over and everybody had gone, Alain
asked me to stay around for a while. We went into another
room and sat down, and he said that he wanted me to- -I guess
even that morning he had said he wanted me to go up to pernay
to meet Robert- Jean de Vogue, who was the chairman still of
Moet-Hennessy, and to take a look around. I said, "Fine," so
that had already been decided. But essentially that evening
he said, "I think we'd like to pursue this further. What
would your involvement be?" I said, "I can promise you total
involvement in terms of being a project leader. I might need
some other help, which would come from Arthur D. Little. I'd
only ask that you write the contract with Arthur D. Little and
not with me personally." He said, "That's no problem. But I
want you to see Bob de Vogue first, before anything is
decided." I said, "Fine."
I went up to Epernay the next day, and they put me up at
the Chateau de Saran, which was quite impressive and
luxurious. I've never stayed there again. [laughter] As an
employee, you see, I didn't, but then I was given the full
treatment. That's all right; I've eaten there a few times,
and my daughter has been there a couple of times.
I met with Bob, who was this incredible- -he was a very
short man, but he looked a little like Maurice Chevalier. He
sort of had an air about him. He'd wear a hat a little cocked
like Maurice Chevalier. He actually had graduated from
St. Cyr, the military academy, so he was very military in his
bearing always, very elegant; a true nobleman, which he was.
The Vogue family is very, very old. In France they have a
saying that there's the nobility of the sword and the nobility
of the robe, and he was definitely the nobility of the sword,
the family going back to the Knights -Templar and all that,
whereas some of the newer nobility were only made ones by
doing favors for Louis XIV, Louis XIII, et cetera.
In fact Bob, even though his education and his first
career were military, really got into the champagne business
because the lady he married was a member of the Moet family,
and somewhat distant, too. Well, she was a member, yes, but
it's a little complicated, because her name wasn't Moet or
Chandbn. I've forgotten what her maiden name was. She's
still alive, Ghislaine. After they got married they brought
him in, and I guess in a matter of a very short period of time
he became the dominant leader of Moet [snap, snap, snap], just
like that- -a fantastic, great sense of leadership.
And he was a bit of a terror; he didn't suffer fools
very much, I guess. I remember he told me one time, "You
know, when I came into the business, all the other
champenoLses wanted to do was leave the bottles in their
cellar because they felt very rich with all the bottles in
their cellar. Moi , je suis un marchand du vin--I'm a wine
merchant. I decided you ought to sell them to get rich!" So
he did. He was one of the first people who had really
aggressively gone out and actually tried to capture market
share. He went into the U.K. [United Kingdom]. At that point
Moet was hardly anything and very soon became the number -one
brand, and he did that in other markets. So he really had a
sense, as he said, of being a "marchand du vin."
But he was also very, very supportive of technology,
almost to a fault. He really believed that technology made
better wine, and he was the first person to have a truly
accredited enologist, as opposed to a kind of "learn on the
job" winemaker. Actually, he separated enology from the chef
du cave anyway. Moet was an innovator in a lot of technology.
The only problem was , when they did any sort of consumer
research they realized that they had to play this down,
because consumers looked upon technology as anti-quality in
some ways .
Hicke: Like it's machine made or something?
Wright: Yes, exactly. But he was very supportive of technology, as
well as being really savvy in marketing and very aggressive in
sales and marketing.
Hicke: He had been to California, hadn't he?
Wright: Yes, at least once, and I'm sure more than that. His son,
[Count] Ghislaine [de Vogue], tells me that in '69 he and
"papa" were here at a wine WSWA (Wine and Spirits Wholesalers
of America) meeting in San Francisco. They were looking for
the hospitality suite of our then agent for both Moet and
Hennessy, Schieffelin & Company, and they wandered into the
wrong suite, which happened to be the Wine Institute that was
having a tasting as well. Ghislain said, "I said to Papa,
'Papa, we must go over to Schieffelin.' He said, 'No, I want
to stay here and taste some of these wines. I'm very
curious.'" So he spent the next three hours there, both
tasting and pontificating, I guess, telling people what he
thought of the wines. He was very fascinated, particularly
with the Cabernets. So he sort of had implanted in the back
of his mind that California was an up-and-coming place to make
world-class wines. He was that kind of a person; he was
really quite broad minded in global outlook.
So I arrived on the scene and was ushered into his
office. 1 sat down, and 1 was somewhat curious as to what
language we were going to speak, but he spoke beautiful
English, which certainly helped, although I could speak a
little bit of French. I speak more today, but at that point I
spoke, well, not bad French, I guess. We chatted, and Bob,
after maybe forty- five minutes or so, said, "Well, I've always
wanted to do something in California. I think the time is
right, but the main thing is to get the right person, and I
want you to be chairman of the company." I said, "What?"
"Well, chairman, president, or whatever you call it." I said,
"I'm very flattered." I didn't say he had made me an offer I
couldn't refuse, but I almost did. I said, "That would be
wonderful , but I think you ought to take a certain amount of
time to study the situation, maybe principally to see whether
we should start from scratch, or whether we should buy an
existing company and what the implications of that would be--
sort of a feasibility study." I said I'd like to do that
under contract with Arthur D. Little, if that was all right.
"Oh, that's no problem. Go right ahead. Fine, fine."
M. Poirier Tastes California Vines
Wright: With that, he said, "Now I want you to meet Monsieur [Renaud]
Poirier, because he will be the one to finally determine
whether or not we go to California." I said, "Oh, really?"
He said, "Yes." So I got ushered out. I didn't know who
Poirier was from whatever. Going through all the buildings at
Moet, into the winery and upstairs in the winery, in the
cuv^rie, which is the tank room, was the lab. I got ushered
into the lab, and this rather tall fellowwell, Renaud was
about ready to retire, so he was about sixty -two or -three
then, with gray hair, not very much hair, with a lab coat on.
I sat down, and he proceeded to talk to me only in French
[laughs]. I found out he could speak English. He wrote
beautiful English, but he would never speak English to me.
He's one of those characters, you know- -sort of one-upmanship.
He asked me a lot of questions about my family life and
all that. Then he said, [forcefully] "Okay, I'm coming over
in December, and I want to taste wines. I don't want to taste
any sparkling wine, because I know it's all inbuvable--
undrinkable. 1 only want to taste wines that were made this
year that are still fresh from this vintage." This was
October, and I said, "It's not going to be terribly easy."
"Well, that's what I want to do." I said, "Okay, I'll start
talking to some wine people there to see if I can get
something set up."
He said, "And I want any number of different cepages--
varieties- -because I don't believe that just because we use
Chardonnay and Pinot noir in champagne, it will work in
California. It's too hot a climate; it won't work. It won't
work, so we've got to look at all these others," and then he
goes on this long speech. He was a real kick. He said, "I'm
a very ill person. I've been diagnosed, and I have a very
serious disease. I don't expect to last for a year." I'm
looking at him like this [shows facial expression]. He's
still alive. [laughter] He said, "I'm bringing my nurse with
me." I said, [whispering] "All right, fine."
It turns out his nurse, Francoise, is his wife as well,
and a delightful, lovely lady for whom he had literally
stormed a convent, where her father had put her to keep her
away from him, and dragged her out of the convent, and they
got married. It's quite a story. I think he really did think
he was very ill. He had had an operation, but it was
obviously very successful.
He laid it out: "I want a place where there are no
extraneous smells, and for every wine I taste, I want a
complete chemical analysis before I taste it, in front." This
is the first person, at least from Champagne, that I have ever
known who wants to taste with a technical analysis in front of
He was the key person who was going to come over and
say, "Can we make really world-class wine here or can't we?
And where should we be?" I came back and busily went around
and got tremendous cooperation from Louis Martini, Bob
Mondavi, Bob Travers at Mayacamas , Mirassou, Christian
Brothers, and a lot of people like that. I got samples of
wine from that year. I told them what I was doing, and there
wasn't any problem. I had a whole bunch of samples there, and
I had all the chemical analyses done by Scott Labs.
Hicke: Can I interrupt and ask why he wanted the chemical analysis?
To check the acidity?
Wright: I don't know. That's just the way he tasted. [laughs] pH,
acidity, et cetera.
Hicke: He wanted to know all that at the time that he was tasting it?
Wright: I think Renaud, who was a very key figure, was so proud, I
guess- -he was the first true enologist in Champagne, with
proper scientific background, although his father was the chef
du cave at Pommery. Renaud followed his father in that job,
but he always fought with the Prince of Polignac, who used to
own Pommery [& Greno]--the Polignac family. Apparently every
two months he'd go in and say, "I quit," and Guy de Polignac
would say, "Oh, no, no, don't do that; don't do that," and
bring him back. So one day I guess Guy de Polignac was so fed
up that when Renaud said, "I quit," he said, "Fine. You're
Within two days Bob de Vogue hired him, for two reasons:
one, he had a really excellent reputation as a
scientist/enologist ; and secondly, Bob de Vogu6 , because he
was head of the resistance during the war- - [Joachim] von
Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, had been a sales
manager for Pommery in Germany, so whether it was correct or
not, there was a certain feeling that Pommery was a bit pro-
German. Pommery was always kind of an enemy for Bob, so if he
could get back at Pommery, he'd do it. So he hired Renaud for
that reason, too.
I got back and hustled around and got everything done,
and Renaud and Francoise came that December. He tasted the
wines and, as I said, wouldn't touch a glass of sparkling
wine- -absolutely would not. He was really quite an
interesting guy. He went through all the swirling and
sniffing and spitting, and he wrote down his notes. What he
found at that stage was that potentially Chardonnay and Pinot
Noir might be a little more interesting than he thought,
although actually I didn't have any real Pinot Noir; I had red
Pinot Noir, but I didn't have any white.
He felt there was a possibility of making a really high-
quality wine. He felt, interestingly enough, that the
mountain vineyards showed a certain subtlety and interest that
some of the valley vineyards did not. And he felt that Napa
Valley was more interesting than the Monterey area or Sonoma
area. Now, was that very scientific? I don't know.
Hicke: Did you have any of your own grapes?
Wright: No, they weren't ready.
So he gave his blessing, said yes, we could make some
really fine wine here.
Hicke: That's amazing, because it sounds as if he came with his mind
made up .
Wright: [laughs]. Even there, he said, "Yes," but he was still very,
very skeptical, particularly about Chardonnay, and for good
reason, considering what he had tasted, although I think there
was one mountain Chardonnay he kind of liked. He said, "Fine,
but we ought to focus primarily on Folle Blanche," and that
was based on one tasting. Lou Martini then had a Folle
Blanche white wine, and Renaud liked it because it was
"neutral"- -not insipid neutral, but it wasn't too fruity. He
also thought that Saint Emilion or Ugni blanc--he didn't taste
any Ugni blanc, because there wasn't any around, or maybe
there was onebut based upon, really, his experience in
Argentina; he'd been down and set up things in Argentina he
just kind of pre- guessed that Ugni blanc would be an
His focus was being worried about too much fruitiness,
too much gout du terroLr and this sort of thing, based upon
his preconceived notion that even though some of these wines
tasted pretty good, the climate was probably still too warm,
in his mind.
At any rate, he put his blessing on it, and we were on
our way. At that point, in looking at the structure of the
industry and who was doing what and what we could do, it
became pretty obvious that buying a company didn't make any
sense. Any company that could have been purchased with any
sort of position in the sparkling wine business- -i.e. , Korbel,
for example --would have required really a very high price-to-
earnihgs ratio, simply because things were looking very good
at that point. I never even inquired whether they were for
sale. And once you've done that, you're still going to have
to invest millions in order to bring the thing around to where
you want it to be and to expand the production, so why try to
undo what others have done?
IV DOMAINE CHANDON
Starting UP. 1972
Wright: It wasn't exactly a no-brain decision, but it didn't take very
long to figure out that we ought to start by ourselves. So we
made that decision. Renaud was over in December of '72, and
by March 26, 1973, the company was officially formed. At that
point I had already optioned some land up on Mt. Veeder next
to where I lived because of the quality potential. It was
also convenient, because my office was in my garage up there
[laughs], so it worked out well. I was really fascinated with
Carneros. That was just starting to come in, and I thought
about the cool climate.
Hicke: Did he taste any wines from there?
Wright: Yes, but they were all red, red Pinot Noirs for the most part.
I thought that was a really interesting area, and I guess I
was somewhat romantic, too, in thinking that what were then
lower-yield vines that had to struggle a little bit- -I did
believe it. In those days we paid fifteen hundred dollars an
acre when we first bought five hundred acres in Carneros. At
that point, if you bought bare land, let's say, in the mid-
Napa Valley- -Oakville , Yountville, Oak Knoll, or wherever--!
would say the going price for bare land then was about eight
thousand an acre. So it was a big difference in price.
Hicke: Did you consider buying vineyards?
Wright: Well, we did, but there weren't any for sale. There really
weren't; there was nothing out there. Nothing out there in
terms of varieties that we thought we'd know and climates that
we'd like. But there was really very little available, and
for very high prices. I mean, you've got to recognize that in
that period of '69, '79, '71, although subsequently things
vent downwards, people were getting a thousand dollars a ton
for Cabernet and a thousand dollars a ton for Pinot noir and
Chardonnay, and so on. On an inflation basis, that was a
tremendous amount of money, particularly when you figured a
vineyard cost then nine or ten thousand an acre; so if you got
four or five tons to the acre, you were getting a really good
deal if you got that kind of money. Therefore obviously
people were asking for a good deal more than that per planted
acre, if anything was available; but essentially nothing was
I had already optioned some land in Carneros , and I
optioned the land up on Mt. Veeder, waiting for the go-ahead:
are we going to go or not? Well, we made the decision in
February or so to go. Kilian Hennessy had just then become
the chairman of the board; Bob had officially retired,
although he subsequently came out for visits two or three
times. Kilian came out, and we signed the papers in the
lawyer's office in San Francisco to officially form the
Was that Morrison & Foerster? John Austin?
John Austin, right.
A French Company in Napa Vallev
Hicke: Let me back up and ask you a little bit about the implications
of a French company starting a winery in the Napa Valley.
First of all their risks, which you assessed very well.
Wright: Yes, or perhaps more opportunities than risks. Interestingly
enough, particularly in the de Vogue era, but even Alain
Chevalier was of the same mold in many respects, they were
much more focused on opportunities than they were on risks.
The focus wasn't how to avoid risk or how to be risk free; the
focus was, "Is there an opportunity here?" I didn't
understand it at the time. I was, frankly, a little amazed.
They never asked to see my study.
Hicke: Oh, they didn't?
Old press from France, 1991
Tasting area, 1991
Photographs by Carole Hicke
Domains Chandon winery, visitors' entrance.
Ancient French wine press in winery courtyard.
Wright: No, they never even looked at a page of it. I think I would
have had some moral misgivings about it, although by then the
study was getting a little old, but they never even asked.
I'm not saying the work I did was slipshod; it wasn't. But
once Poirier came back and said, "Look, we can make good wine
there," I think that was it. They were going to do it because
they saw an opportunity. Why they saw an opportunity or were
looking at it opportunistically was that at that point in
time --and this was the fall of '72--
Wright: We're looking now at the fall of '72, when I met Bob de Vogue.
The apparent demand for Champagne, in terms of their sales in
'69, '70, '71, looked like an ever -increasing demand,
particularly in the French market. Post-World War II, the
French really discovered Champagne and were drinking
tremendous quantities; their consumption really leaped up.
Exports were less buoyant but still sound.
So they were looking at a situation, in the fall of '72,
where the harvest of '71 produced excellent quality but very
little quantity in Champagne. The harvest of '70 was both
relatively large in quantity and very good in quality. Right
at this point- -this was October of '72, and the weather was
foul; '72 was absolutely a hideous year in terms of quality- -
they were looking at a more or less normal crop but a very,
very low quality. So they were really sitting on an inventory
which wasn't of the size that they usually felt comfortable
with for the future. They were saying, "Here's the demand for
Champagne running up this way; here's what our supply is. The
appellation contrdlee laws say now we can only plant about
1 percent or 2 percent a year." You see, they changed the
law, which they do frequently, sometime in the mid- sixties to
slow the planting down.
"Here we are, Moet & Chandon, being the dominant
producer by far, essentially being forced to restrict our
growth in the future because of lack of grapes. So let's not
only continue to export our product, but let's take our
scientific knowledge- -art , if you will and experience and
transfer them to other places in the world where the market
looks attractive and where we can make quality wine that we're
not ashamed to put our name on." This was the basic
rationale, primarily formulated by Bob de Vogu6 and Alain
Chevalier, both of whom were fundamentally strategic thinkers.
Hicke: Was there some worry about France turning a little bit towards
Wright: None whatsoever on their part. That came later, but it was
never a motivation for Mot. It's been a motivation for other
investments, but there was never any consideration of that
whatsoever; it was purely, "This is a business opportunity.
We're not trying to sock money away." Even the exchange
rate- -they said, "We don't care about the exchange rate; that
all evens out over time, so let's not make a big deal about
it." No, it was really based on a business opportunity.
Now, there was a good deal of concern about what the
American reaction was going to be, or more specifically, "What
is the reaction of the Napa community going to be towards a
foreigner coming in and investing?" I said, "Gee, I can't
believe it will be anything other than favorable, for several
reasons. One, Moet coming into the Napa Valley is just a sign
of approval, that in a sense you have arrived, because Mot's
a very prestigious company. Unless people are totally
xenophobic, they're not going to react negatively to that.
Secondly, we're not buying anybody. We're not buying out a
little old family and all this kind of thing, or even a
corporate thing. We're contributing straight from the ground
up, so nobody can accuse us of just doing something like, if
you will, the Japanese and so forth are accused of --buying up
companies . "
Of course, the reason for a lot of their concern is that
the French had historically been more xenophobic and
mistrusting of foreign investment, particularly foreign
purchase of high-quality wineries. In fact, it's virtually
impossible to do that unless you are part of the European
Hicke: They would feel uncomfortable about somebody coming into
Wright: Oh, you bet your life. Now, legally, if it were a British or
German company, a member of the EEC [European Economic
Community], they couldn't do anything about it; the government
can't do anything about it. But if it's a Japanese company,
yes, the French government probably would not allow that.
But we Americans are not like that, right? Or we
weren't in those days. So I said I wouldn't worry about it.
"Well, but we must." One of the first things they wanted to
do was to have a reception for Napa Valley vintners and
growers. I said, "Fine, we'll do that," and we went over to
the Silverado Country Club and brought in numerous cases of
Moet Champagne, because we had nothing ourselves that we had
made. Bob de Vogue came over specifically for that, and with
him was a fellow named Tex Bomba. Tex had just retired from
Schieffelin & Company and was really--! don't think his
official title was president, but he really ran Schieffelin
and was a wonderful guy, very open minded and a very nice
Both Tex and Bob at that point were about age 75 or 76.
Tex came with Bob to accompany him to the party at Silverado,
and all sorts of people showed up- -a great success. I
remember that I got involved in talking to somebody, and Bob
came right over to me and said, "John, you must stand with me
at the front door. I want you to introduce me properly," and
I said, "Yes, sir!." [laughs] That reception I think was
quite successful in saying that we were maybe okay people, and
in those days I never, ever felt any kind of community
resistance, certainly not in the grape-growing or winemaking
communities. There have been times when I felt that some of
the politicians in the city or in the county have been a
little prejudiced, but nothing of any real impact.
Working tfith the Trefethens
Wright: The other importance of that party was that among the invitees
was the Trefethen family. Katie Trefethen, Gene Trefethen's
wife, came with her sister, Barbara Eisley and her brother-in-
law, Milt Eisley. Gene was on a trip. He was president of
Kaiser [Aluminum & Chemical Company] , and he was over in Japan
or Australia or somewhere. He was actually due back that
evening, so he couldn't come to the party. Tex was always one
to spot a very attractive lady and go and be very gentlemanly
and gracious and so forth, so I think the minute that Katie
walked into that room, Tex was probably right over talking to
I met Katie; I knew the vineyard because I'd seen it,
but I had yet to meet anybody from the Trefethen family. I
might have met Tony Baldini, who is vineyard general manager.
At any rate, I was familiar with the vineyard and its size and
its quality. Tex brought me over and introduced me to Katie,
and Katie said, "Why don't you all come for lunch tomorrow at
the Villa Trefethen?" I said, "That would be a great idea,"
so Bob de Vogu6, Tex, and I went over there and met John
Trefethen and Katie and Gene and had a wonderful lunch and a
wonderful time .
I started talking a little bit to John. He was starting
to make some wine from some of his grapes , and he had some
help from Tom Farrell, who was then with Inglenook. I said,
"Gee, you grow a lot of Pinot noir, don't you?" "Well, we're
in the process." I said, "You know, we'd maybe like some
grapes , " and 1 sort of planted the seed and made an
appointment to see John the next week.
When I sat down with John, I realized that he had this
building over there that used to be a winery that he wanted to
get back into being a winery. It was one of the few sources
of potentially significant quantities of grapes, and the
problem then was to try to find grapes .
Hicke: He wasn't making wine?
Wright: No, not at that time. He had made a little bit at home. In
fact, I remember, we tasted it. [laughs] No comments, John.
I met with John perhaps a week later, and he told me,
"We're in a situation where we think we want to sell about a
third of our grapes to the co-op, because that's fairly
dependable. We'd probably like to make wine out of a third,
and then we'd like to find a home for the other third that we
can be comfortable with." I said, "Here's a wonderful kind of
mutual opportunity, because we're looking for grapes." What
we wanted to do that year- -this was in '73- -was to vinify ten
or twelve different varieties. This was Poirier's plan, see,
because he wasn't convinced. We were going to try Riesling,
Semillon, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Colombard, Folle blanche,
Ugni blanc, and you name it. The only way we had to do that
at that point was to contract it out. We weren't really happy
with doing that, because we wanted to press the product right
and handle it correctly and all that. We had hoped that some
of the wine would be useful enough to put away as reserve wine
to blend with the next year's wine.
This was June. I said to John, "We could probably, on a
very hurried-up basis, get your building over there"- -which
was dirt floor, nothing- -"into a functioning winery by crush.
Because we pick grapes early, et cetera, and you're just
starting anyway, we'd provide equipment, we'd provide the
basic infrastructure going in; once we leave the winery you
can 'find a way to pay us back on some basis. And we'd like to
buy"- -I forget what it was, but it was a pretty substantial
amount, certainly our major source of Pinot noir and
Chardonnay, although we didn't buy everything we could have
because we were still cautious about those varieties.
I said, "We can make wine in your facility under our
total control, and you, in turn, will have a winery built for
you at that level." He said, "That sounds like a great idea,"
so literally in a matter of about a month and a half or two
months--! think we started making wine at Trefethen on August
28 that year. That was pretty exciting.
Hicke: Did they already have it bonded?
Wright: No, they had nothing. I guess they were in the process of
getting it, but that wasn't a problem. A bigger problem is
always with the county. The feds and the state aren't a
problem; it's the county that's always a problem in trying to
do anything innovative around here. Fortunately the building
was up, and the kind of permits you needed to get were not as
horrendous as they could have been. Today, hah! It would be
totally impossible. The county just wouldn't get their act
together in nearly enough time to get a winery put up in that
order. This would never happen.
But that was really fortunate, because it gave us a year
up. It was a wonderful opportunity for us, and I think it was
a good opportunity for Trefethen. They proceeded to make some
damned good wine that year, and the year after- -the '74- -I
think their Chardonnay won the French tasting.
Hicke: I read somewhere that you were working upstairs, and they were
Wright: [laughs] Yes. Well, from time to time- -I know both Janet and
John were very thankful when we left [laughs], and rightfully
so, because we were expanding all the time, and Trefethen
actually expanded faster than they thought they were going to,
so we started getting a little bit in each other's way.
Hicke: You mean in following years?
Wright: Yes, exactly. The last crush we did at Trefethen was '77, and
even in '77 what we crushed- -pressed would be more accurate--
presses up here in Yountville, but we still had stuff in there
in '77, and we got out, basically, in '77. Then they still
had to build another building to meet their needs.
Hicke: That was an amazing coincidence.
Wright: Oh, it sure was, and thank God for that party.
Choosing the Grape Varieties
Hicke: What happened to these other varieties of grapes that you were
going to try?
Wright: Well, it was wonderful. We vinified all these varieties, and
then Renaud came over that spring to taste what we called the
base wines --the individual wines. I guess Philippe Coulon,
who is now the technical director of Moe't & Chandon, came over
during the harvest to help supervise. He's an excellent wine
man, really an enologist. The rest of it was us, really.
Hicke: Who was "us"?
Wright: Me and a fellow named Kim Giles, who had just been the
winemaker at Mt. Veeder Vineyards and left- -a kind of an
acquaintance; I knew Kim, and I knew he made wine at Hanzell
[Vineyard] and a couple of other places. Kim came on board,
and that was about it, I guess. But Philippe came over, and
they were very precise as to what they wanted. Of course, the
equipment was all laid out for what they wanted. The tanks
were American, et cetera, but the presses and other things
were all basically dictated to us, and properly so, by Moe't as
to what they wanted.
Hicke: Were you acting as winemaker?
Wright: Well, I was pulling hoses around, yes. Kim was the real
winemaker, but, sure, I certainly worked the crush. I used to
work the night shift; I did that for five years. That was a
lot of fun; I enjoyed that They wouldn't let me be the
winemaker; I'd screw it all up. I make wine at home still- -
very, very good Cabernet and Pinot Noir, occasionally a
Hicke: Does Renaud come and taste it?
Hicke: Does Renaud come and taste it?
Wright: No, he hasn't. Actually, I've been out of touch with him for
probably five years. I hope he's doing all right. He retired
after that; just at that point he was ready to retire. But he
did come over in the spring. I guess prior to that I was back
in France, and I met Edmond Maudiere, who is our present
consulting enologist. Edmond had come out of Mercier as the
chef du cave, but also went to the Institute Pasteur and was a
qualified enologist, although a fourth- generation Champagne
maker- -his great grandfather and so forth. Edmond, in the
merger of Mercier and Moet, in terms of the chef du cave type
of roles, was pushed aside because Mot was the bigger
company, even though Edmond was totally qualified for that.
Partly that, and partly because he really does speak rather
good English, much better than Renaud- -well , I think Renaud
speaks, but he won't.
Renaud was ready to retire that coming year, so I was
introduced to Edmond as being the successor to Renaud. Edmond
came over with Renaud that spring to taste the wines. I think
in retrospect that was also a very good stroke of fortune,
because Renaud was unquestionably an extremely qualified
Champagne maker, enologist, et cetera, but is not the most
flexible of people. Edmond is really a very open-minded,
enthusiastic, optimistic, "try it" type of person. Had he not
been on the board, I think we might have been a little more
confined in what we finally did.
They both came over, and lo and behold, of the wines we
tasted, the clear A-l wines were (1) Pinot Noir, (2) Pinot
Blanc, and (3) Chardonnay. But Renaud still insisted that
Folle blanche and Ugni blanc ought to be used, even though
they didn't come up very well. The good news with that is
that we realized that we could expand the purchase of Pinot
noir and Chardonnay from Trefethen and feel very comfortable
with what we could make from that wine. We had already
developed some other sources, albeit rather small, but a
source for Pinot blanc up at the old Lyncrest vineyard; we got
that.. I don't remember right now where we got some other
Pinot noir from, but it was predominantly Trefethen.
That really, as I said, allowed us to put away some
reserve wine --Pinot Noir and Chardonnay- -for the following
year, and allowed us to go back to Trefethen and say, "Hey, we
can use a lot more." We did that. It also solved once and
for all that we weren't going to use any Riesling, Semillon,
Green Hungarian. About the only thing we didn't try was
Thompson's Seedless. [laughter] I don't think there was any
grown in the Napa Valley or on the coast; maybe we would have
if there had been any.
So that was a very important decision point. We did
subsequently plant some Folle blanche and Ugni blanc, both in
Carneros and some Folle blanche up on Mt. Veeder. Those
vineyards have since been budded over to Chardonnay, Pinot
blanc, and Pinot noir. [laughs] The theory wasn't true in
As I say, Edmond came in at that point, and Renaud was
still on board through that year, I guess. We were on the
right way, I felt, in terms of the grapes we were going to
use, and I felt really comfortable with that. I didn't feel
comfortable making a wine that was out of Folle blanche or
Ugni blanc .
Support and Involvement of the French Owners
Hicke: What kind of financial support did you get, and how did you
work out that arrangement?
Wright: Well, just deep pockets. [laughter] Not totally. Actually,
they brought over a million dollars to get things started.
That was enough to make the down payments on some of these
vineyard lands . What I was not aware of at the time was that
the company, Moet-Hennessy, as successful as it was even in
those days, was experiencing- -particularly in the subsequent
year, '73 going into '74 --some pretty severe cash problems. I
thought, "Heck, there's lots of money over there," but when I
looked at the balance sheet, particularly when I understood a
little better how they kept their balance sheet, I realized
that they had the financial wherewithal, but in terms of what
they were generating from actual cash, there was not an
enormous amount of cash.
I think for that reason, but also for other reasons
which I've never totally fully understood, they took the
position of very high leverage, so we almost immediately went
out and borrowed a hell of a lot of money locally.
Hicke: From which bank?
Hicke : From which bank?
Wright: Initially from the Bank of America. Jack Hart was the head of
the wine group or whatever at B of A [Bank of America] . We
borrowed or had a [credit] line of about five million dollars.
It's always been our policy to be very highly leveraged.
Today the debt that we have we owe to the parent company.
Over time they took over and took us out of the banks, but we
still pay interest to the parent company. It's a pain, but
it's also good discipline [laughs], because when you have that
big, huge interest bill out there, life isn't a bed of roses
from a financial point of view. Life was perhaps a good deal
more complicated or severe by having this huge burden of debt,
but at the same time I think it served a certain disciplinary
purpose of not being profligate (or whatever the right word
In terms of, "Hey, can we borrow more money?" or, "Would
you send over another million?" and that kind of thing, they
were fantastic, just wonderful individuals and very, very
hands off --really hands off, for the most part. Technically
it was just a wonderful situation, because I can go to Moet
even today and interface with the technical people. I don't
have to go through all sorts of layers of management to do
this. They are very open minded about this, and vice versa;
they get stuff from us, and we get stuff from them. But it's
never, "I'm going to charge you this much for Edmond's time,"
and all that kind of stuff.
Today, as of a year ago, we are officially a subsidiary
of Moet & Chandon, whereas before we were a part of Moet-
Hennessy. So today my real boss is the president of Moet &
Hicke: Who is he?
Wright: His name is Yves Benard. I find that very beneficial in
today's world, because the overall company, LVMH [Louis
Vuitton Moet-Hennessy] , in Paris a holding companyis
composed mostly of people who are pretty much financially
oriented, as they should be, but without a good deal of
understanding of the Champagne business per se, but with
enough sense to say, "The Champagne group ought to run its
business, and the cognac group ought to run its business"--
globally. In that kind of philosophy, which is totally
correct for today's world, it does make sense to have Domaine
Chandon- -and for that matter Simi [Winery], which is the
company that was bought later, not as a purchase directly of
the winery but as a purchase of our distributor, Schieffelin- -
to be a part of the champagne and wine group. That's headed
up by Yves Benard, who is the president of Mot & Chandon. He
has primarily a technical background; he went to Montpellier,
which is generally considered to be one of the best schools in
France for viticulture and enology. He understands the pluses
and minuses, et cetera, of the Champagne and sparkling wine
business very well, so it's good to have that relationship.
But prior to that, when Alain Chevalier was chairman of
the whole thingpartly because he was the founder with me, I
guess--! think he always felt he wanted to have a more direct
line to Chandon. Up until recently we officially weren't a
part of Moet & Chandon and Epernay, but I never felt that to
ever be a problem of lack of cooperation on their part; it's
always been very generously given. So it's been a good
Hicke: Since we're on finances right now, how did things work out
with the taxes --for instance, California's unitary system?
Wright: Oh, boy! Well, back when we formed the company, John Austin
was there, and we formed the two companies on paper. One was
called M & H Vineyards, which stood for Moet-Hennessy, and the
other was M & H Ventures , which was to be a holding company
based in Delaware, the thought being that by insulating it a
little bit, the possibility of getting hit with unitary tax
was somewhat lessened. He went through all this; I didn't
have the foggiest notion what the unitary tax was then.
Subsequently I've learned.
As it turned out, the French government was really anti-
holding company and didn't allow us to form another holding
company, so M & H Ventures never really materialized into
anything. But it was understood, not by me but by the
financial people in Paris --to some degree, and certainly
Morrison & Foerster--
Wright: It wasn't considered as major an obstacle as maybe it should
have been considered for the investment. As it turned out--
I'm trying to remember- -what we finally got hit with, because
of the unitary tax, was not as much as one might have
expected. I forget why now. Because in theory we could be
losing money here, which we were, but the state of California
would be taxing on Moet's worldwide profits.
Hicke: Yes, and maybe even LMVH. It would be incredible.
Wright: Well, now, yes. Oh, yes.
Hicke: There's a court case on it now.
Wright: I think now, where we are in terms of the amount of our
investment, which is based on the number employees, the
investment, et cetera, that comes from California, for
everything, I think, the actual tax implications are pretty
neutral. What we pay in taxes to California wouldn't be a
heck of a lot different than what they would be taxing based
upon their formula.
Hicke: What about the French? Do they tax this operation?
Wright: No, only on what's gone back, and nothing has gone back yet.
Not a sou or a franc. [laughs] I laugh, but we've just
continued to put money into growth, so we really haven't paid
Hicke: We've covered my outline pretty well, and we've gotten to your
first year. One question I'd like to ask: obviously
Champagne people are used to this, but to make sparkling wine,
do you have to have a greater capital investment than you
would for some other wines because of the aging?
Wright: That's an interesting question. [long pause to think] I
think a better way of saying it is that you've got an
investment that is much more affected by economies of scale
than fine table wine, because you have principally disgorging
equipment, riddling, and that sort of thing. Particularly
disgorging is a very complicated kind of thing, and you want
to do it at a reasonable rate of speed, therefore at a
feasible labor rate, which means buying some very, very
expensive equipment. If you're at 10,000 cases, you've either
got a very high labor input or you've got a reasonable labor
input with a very high, normally underutilized investment in--
we'll call it bottling equipment, particularly.
If you're a 300,000- or, as we are, a 400,000- or
500, 000 -case winery, our investment in property, plant, and
equipment is significantly lower per case than it would be if
we were a 20,000- or a 10, 000 -case winery. In white wine and
red wine with their barrel age, every fifty gallons you've got
to buy a barrel, and that's a very heavy investment,
particularly if you're using French oak, but even if you're
using American oak.
So economies of scale are much more favorable . To be
bigger in sparkling wine is a bigger economic advantage than
it is in the fine table wine business. Now, if you're making
wines that never see oak, then somewhat the same thing holds
true, except the bottling equipment isn't as complicated or
expensive in table wine.
Once we broke the 100,000-case barrier, so to speak,
which was our initial capacity, I went back and said, "Look,
I've just pretty much proven that we can certainly sell
100,000 cases." Our initial strategy was to get in and
demonstrate that that was true and develop our niche in the
marketplace. The secondary strategy was to get really
efficient and be the lowest-cost producer using the quality
grapes that we did. That said, it made a lot of sense to
increase capacity, not only for market, because we thought we
could develop the market, but also because subsequent
investment per case is a fraction of the initial investment
Champagne or Sparkling Wine?
Hicke: I know everybody asks why it's called sparkling wine rather
than champagne; I think that's a story you might tell. And
then you were just talking about a market niche, and I
wondered if you targeted some special niche in price or--
Wright: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Hicke: First the name:
Wright: Sparkling wine. I can well remember- -maybe my memory is a
little hazy, but I don't think it is; I can at least somehow
remember Robert- Jean de Vogue telling me, when we were
starting this whole thing, "John, I do not care, but the
ChampenoLs probably will not want you to call this champagne.
Really rather silly of them, because it's wonderful that
Champagne is such a wonderful image," and so forth and so on.
He said, "So you go ahead and do what you want." I said,
"Well, to tell you the truth, I don't think we should label
the product champagne, because I see the trend anyway going
away from chablis and burgundy; but a little more difficult is
the instant kind of image and vision that champagne has. Let
me think about it."
As I was thinking about it, Bertrand Mure, who was then
the managing director of Moet & Chandon, since retiredand he
was not my boss; in fact, Alain tried to keep all these guys
out of the States at this point [laughs] - -came over as Mofet &
Chandon. This was probably '74 or something like that.
Actually, Bertrand and I got along very well. Bertrand was
over here for something and got interviewed, and about the
first thing out of his mouth was, "Of course, we will not call
it champagne; it will be sparkling wine." So inadvertently,
Bertrand made the decision for me, and I said, "What the
hell . "
For a while it became quite a big point of controversy.
All the marketing "geniuses" said, "Oh, you'll fail if you
don't put champagne on the label," oh, horrible, horrible,
horrible. Other marketing geniuses said we could never think
of charging more than three dollars a bottle, and all that
kind of stuff. The San Francisco Chronicle came out with an
editorial that ended, "As the late Joe McCarthy said," which I
thought was kind of humorous, to use him as an example, "if it
smells like champagne, tastes like champagne, and looks like
champagne, it is champagne and shouldn't be called anything
else." So there was a little bit of controversy there.
I think even if Bertrand had not put me into that
position, I think I still would have believed that we ought to
call it what it is. Certainly in public or in talking I often
use the word "champagne" for Chandon. I really don't get all
hooked up about it, but I think on the label it ought to say
what it is, which is sparkling wine. I know there have been
some abuses, particularly among bulk- fermented products, which
are still on the market at this point, that are not labeled
strictly according to labeling law. That annoys me a bit, but
it's not a big deal overall.
Up until very recently, I'd say Chandon has been
primarily purchased because we developed a reputation as a
brand offering quality for a reasonable price, when you think
about it. I think at this stage we- -Chandon and all the
newcomers that have come into the business, and there have
been many- -must work on a group approach towards getting
recognition of this as a category. Just as California
Cabernets and California Chardonnays have developed a world
reputation, California sparkling wine using the classical
varieties deserves a "world class" image.
By and large the press doesn't realize this or has not
particularly publicized that. When the press go out they
always say, "Well, there's the real stuff- -Champagne- -and
there's all the rest." They haven't really clearly
distinguished that there is a class of product out there,
whether it's Chandon or Mumm Napa or Roederer Estate or
Domaine Carneros. We are different stylistically, but we are
all making really quality sparkling wines, higher than
99 percent of all sparkling wines in the world.
We need to work on that, and that's the next step, to
really do more group promotion, publicity, and education of
this as a category. Otherwise I think we're going to run into
some problems. We've got an over-capacity situation at this
point, and it'll get worse. I'm particularly interested now
not only in what I ordinarily do in terms of the Chandon brand
but in actually working on the category.
Hicke : What kinds of things did you do in the beginning to place
yourself in what you might call the champagne market, but
calling your product sparkling wine?
Wright: First of all, since we were new and something really
different, I think we got a lot of publicity just because of
that. If you're reasonably large, I'm not sure that getting a
lot of publicity in the wine and food press does all that much
for you, just because the people who really read the wine
columns are not very numerous. Although there are enough,
certainly in the beginning, if you're reasonably small. If
you can get to those people and you get a good review, it
helps. Certainly it gets the point out. Also when you're
brand-new you get a certain amount of support from the trade,
because they figure, "Oh, here's something new," and it's a
great story to tell. It's a great story to tell, but
interestingly enough the consumer by and large doesn't know
the story or doesn't respond to it. It's amazing how many
consumers--! mean very good consumers of Chandon- -don' t
connect us whatsoever with Mofet & Chandon.
It's very, very surprising. We have our own
Is that good or bad?
I think probably on balance it's been good. What's really
interesting here is going back to the original strategy that
demand for champagne was going to outweigh supply. One thing
that happened was that going into '73 and into '74 we had a
recession, and the whole wine industry went down. If my
meeting with Bob de Vogue had been a year later, or certainly
a year and a half later, this might never have happened. Oh,
it might still have happened because of Bob and Alain, but it
would have been a lot tougher.
So they went from a shortage to a period of surplus, in
part brought on by some very large vintages; '73 was a big,
big harvest. Seventy- four was pretty big but not such good
quality; '75 was small, and '76 was huge.
Was this in Champagne?
Yes. Moet found other ways of increasing its production, more
so than they thought they'd be able to.
What other ways?
Well, there are ways of doing this. [laughs] There is a
whole system, not only at Moet. I don't think many people
realize this, though it's not ever been particularly hidden,
that the law on champagne says that if you have your label on
it, it doesn't necessarily mean you made the wine.
Yes. So there is quite a trade in Champagne in what they call
vin du speculation, where you can buy wine that's made by the
co-op or whatever and bring it into your winery, riddle it,
disgorge it, and put your label on it. Some of that's been
done, not only by Moet but by all the major companies.
Generally when they do that they buy good wine, because
there's very little bad wine in Champagne; they really know
what they're doing.
Hicke: And they obviously want to keep their reputations.
Wright: And generally those particular wines don't get onto the export
market very much, because they're not exactly the same.
So there are ways like that, and other ways, such as the
Mercier brand; we kind of held or decreased its volume.
Mercier has some wonderful vineyards and base wines, and we've
used these in Moet blends. So we had much more Mo6t available
to this market than we ever thought we would, and therefore
what really happened was that Moet started to grow just as we
were growing. We started in 1974 --let's say in the era of
'74, '75, '76, because we didn't start selling really until
Christmas of '76, and our first full year was '77. At that
point, the sales of Moet, including Dom Perignon, in the U.S.
were about 120,000 cases. Of that, as I recall, something
like 30,000 was to border stores, which is really kind of a
Mexican type of situation- -Texas , Mexico. So probably the
true domestic demand for Moet and Dom Perignon was about
We started at zero, okay? Moet last year sold about
480,000 cases, including Dom Perignon, and we sold about
400,000 cases. So both brands have grown; they haven't
cannibalized each other. And I've never had any pressure from
France, like, "John, you must raise your price because you're
taking business away from Moet," or things like that.
There are a couple of people out there who shall be
nameless who have almost publicly accused "the French" as
deliberately wanting to make inferior wine here in order to
prove that Champagne is somehow superior. That has to be
about . the dumbest thing I ever heard. We've got seventy or
eight million dollars invested in this, and we're sure not
going to put that kind of money into something to deliberately
make inferior wine. In that sense, the distinct personalities
of these brands as viewed by the consumer or seems to be
viewed by the consumer- -is a real benefit. What's interesting
is that there is very little evidence, which I never would
have believed when I started, that we gained a lot of actual
consumer trial and repeat purchase because we were connected
to Moet. It's quite fascinating.
Hicke: What market did you target?
Wright: Geographically, certainly California and, shortly after, the
key metropolitan areas.
Hicke: And a price niche?
Wright: Yes, we wanted to be somewhere in between Korbel and Champagne
at that stage. In those days there was mandatory fair trade
in the key markets- -California and New York- -and the fair
trade price for Chandon was $7.80 a bottle. I think Korbel
was about $5.80 and Moet was $9.99. Within a year we went up
to $8.50; Moet was still at $9.99, and Korbel was up a little
bit at six something. That was all based upon some pretty
hefty mark-ups at retail in California and New York. In those
days a retailer typically made a 33 percent margin on his
sales, so he took his costs and marked up 50 percent.
Today you've got a very different world out there, with
major chain stores like Safeway or these clubs --Price Club and
Costco. Other retailers, in order to compete, take a much,
much lower margin- -in fact, in some cases no margin. Last
year the lowest price that I know of that Chandon was sold at
was $8.49 a bottle, which was basically a retailer's cost of
picking up the wine from this winery- -a loss leader.
Hicke: There's no wholesaler?
Wright: In northern California we're our own wholesaler, so yes, the
wholesale price, but the deepest wholesale price --the hundred-
case price. When you consider that when we first opened our
price was $7.80, and that was in '76, and there's been
enormous inflation since then, the consumer is getting a hell
of a deal to get it for that. Meanwhile, Moet and other
champagnes have gone up from $9.99 to probably the lowest you
can get Champagne today that I know of is $17.99. But if you
went to Europe right now, if you were in London, even in a
discount store, you would pay $40 a bottle for Moet and in
France about $30 a bottle. So still the cheapest place in the
world to buy French Champagne is the United States.
Hicke: Why is that?
Wright: Because we're a competitive market, and Americans are spoiled.
We are very assertive, vigorous, nasty buyers. I mean, the
consumer here is really very, very cost conscious. We
Americans are not prepared generally to spend the kind of
money on food and fine beverage that Europeans are. We are
totally spoiled in this country. It's amazing.
Hicke: Does the Chandon wine keep the price of the Mot wine down
here in the states?
Wright: No, not at all.
Hicke: So they're not competing?
Wright: No, no, I think what's kept the price down is that the
importer agents, of which Schieffelin-Somerset is ours that we
own, have managed to convince so far the suppliers- -Moet,
Mumm, et cetera- -that , "Golly, if you're above a certain
price, you're going to start losing this market." And then
there's a lag response to wine in inventory that hasn't gone
through; the wholesaler is still playing games with his mark
up structure, so that the price increases that have occurred
in Champagne for grapes and for wine , which are enormous ,
still haven't been fully felt in this market. Once that's
true- -I mean, by the end of this year, 1991, I can't imagine
any Champagne brand of any sort of notoriety, or even not,
being less than $20 a bottle, and more likely $25. But there
may still be some around. Even the $20 will represent a
retailer selling at his cost.
That should offer an opportunity for us. Chandon
certainly, but also like companies that are using Pinot noir
and Chardonnay grapes and aging the wine properly and all
that the others don't have exactly the same cost base that we
have, because we're more efficient, but we're still looking
at- -let's say if we buy grapes, and right now we buy about 40
percent of our grapes and grow about 60 percent, we average --
let's make it easy- -a thousand dollars a ton for Pinot noir
and Chardonnay together. You pay a bit more for Chardonnay
and a bit less for Pinot noir. I think our average is about a
thousand dollars. Thus last fall, if we converted what the
franc was worth then (now it's decreased a little bit), the
price of grapes in Champagne was seven thousand dollars a ton,
so we have a seven to one cost advantage. That was at five
francs to the dollar. The dollar has improved a little bit- -I
think it's 5.6 or so --but we have clear raw-material cost
interestingly enough, were about equal to what our costs were
in pernay, even though they're thirty million bottles a year
and we're five million bottles. By being new, we had certain
Hicke : And the most modern equipment?
Wright: Yes. At five or six francs to the dollar, we have a very
definite cost advantage. Labor input is much lower here than
it is in France or in Germany or in Italy. Things have just
really skyrocketed. If the world were a truly fair-trading
place and totally open, we and other California wineries would
have a very significant fundamental reason for being more
prominent in the world market than we are. But it isn't just
protectionism that prevents more export than we see; a lot of
it is just plain what people are used to. In the traditional
wine-drinking countries, which are the big markets- -heck, a
Burgundian won't drink a Bordeaux, and you want a Burgundian
to drink a California wine? It's not going to happen.
V GROWTH OF DOMAINE CHANDON
Hicke: Let's go back to when you were starting to make wine. What
was the first year that you made wine?
Wright: That was '73, and it was kind of amusing- -in retrospect,
[laughs] I remember Edmond decided that we should really
press in a closed area. There wasn't any obvious way to get
it into the Trefethen winery building, so we built an
extension on it, a fairly simple structure, so it wasn't all
that costly. We put our one press in there --we only had one
press in those days- -and it was pretty crammed. To properly
process grapes for sparkling wine, you don't want to crush the
grapes, just press themwhole skins- -because you don't
extract the tannins that way.
That was relatively easy with Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
It's just by happenstance that those grapes, and Pinot blanc,
press beautifully. They've got the sort of skins that break
up nicely, and they don't have a lot of pectin kinds of stuff.
Well, Ugni blanc is absolutely miserable, as is Colombard and
some of these other varieties. So what we had in this press
were these grape skins and grapes shooting out of the slots in
the press, all over the building. Oh, it was an absolute,
bloody-awful mess. Plus, because of this sort of enclosed
space, we didn't really have at that point a very well-
designed way of taking out the pommace at the bottom.
Tony Baldini, the manager at Trefethen, who is really a
great guy and very flexible well, sometimes he isn't so
flexible, but he's very ingenious- -dug up an old walnut
conveyer that husked walnuts or something, and it looked like
it would carry these grapes out. There we were, and that
darned thing really wasn't working very well. There were
grapes and seeds and skins all over the place, the result
being that the next harvest we tore down that whole structure
and put the presses outside where they should have been in the
first place; it's a lot easier to deal with. So we had some
pretty interesting times there those first couple of years.
It was a lot of fun.
I remember another amusing story. We had a big Dempsey
dumpster type of thing where we dumped all of the cardboard
and stuff that we had.
Wright: In those days, as we started our tirage, or bottling, the
bottles would come in units of fifteen to a corrugated box.
At Trefethen we aged these bottles- -sur latte, we'd call it.
You know, we didn't use the boxes; we just stacked bottles on
top of bottles. So we had all these corrugated boxes, and we
took it out to the Dempster dumpster to then be sent to a
recycling company. I was out there, and I jumped into the
dumpster to get the boxes sort of knocked down, because they
were overflowing. I think it was a Saturday, and this car
drives up. It was the local ABC [television] guy from
California. I forget his last name; it was Italian. He was
just about to retire.
He said, "Anybody around here?" I said, "Well, I am,"
and he says, "Yeah, but I mean is anybody in charge here?" I
said, "I guess I am." He said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm
John Wright." He said, "What do you do here?" I said, "I'm
the president." He looked at me: "What are you doing up
there?" [laughter] He was pretty amazed. There were some
amusing times at Trefethen.
The '73 wine was a bit more mature because we harvested
a little bit later then. We didn't know quite as much as we
know now. I remember Tony Baldini was absolutely adamant:
"Labor Day's a holiday here; we can't start until after Labor
Day." We went off that Friday before Labor Day, and things
were getting up there in sugar, but they didn't look too bad.
This hot spell came in on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and by
Tuesday the wine was up to nineteen, nineteen and a half Brix.
It was a bit more than we subsequently harvested to, but the
wine came out well. We didn't bottle that separately. We
blended that in with the wine from '74. As I recall, the
percentage of the two blends of wine from '73- -the Blanc de
Noirs blend and the Brut blend constituted about 13 percent
of the blend, so the first cuvee was largely '74. All the
Riesling and the Colorabard and all that we sold in bulk. We
didn't use it; we just used the Pinot blanc, Pinot noir, and
Hicke: Who did the blending?
Wright: Oh, Edmond. He's done the blending ever since. By then
Poirier had retired, so from the very beginning our blends
have always been put together by Edmond, and they still are
with, now, Dawnine [Dyer], the winemaker, and Pat [Howe], her
assistant. Edmond' s been there from the very beginning, which
is great, because that's provided a degree of continuity.
It's fascinating to talk to him. I didn't realize it at
first, but Edmond is outgoing. He's a little hyper, but he's
very open and nice and humorous and just has a wonderful time.
He's a wonderful guy and has a wonderful personality.
I've always accused him of having the best job in the
company, because he just goes around and doesn't have a lot of
people problems to deal with and all that. I think he does,
actually, have the best job in the company [laughs].
Fortunately, he loves to travel. He loves to do everything:
he loves to fly airplanes.
Hicke: How old is he?
Wright: Well, he's going to retire this year. He'll be sixty- five in
calendar year '92, but he's got the personality of a twenty-
year-old- -just great joie de vivre. I used to notice that
he'd be very casual about things, which was nice in a way,
because he wasn't overly, "Do this, do that." He really let
people develop. But every time he'd come over to blend, he
was a different person. He was really uptight- -communicative ,
but visibly tense. After the first couple of years, I finally
said to him, "Edmond, I don't understand this. Every time you
come over for the blending you're really kind of a different
person." He said, "Well, yes, you're right." I said, "Why?
Look at all you blend in Epernay; you blend many more millions
of bottles, and you've got the responsibility for Dom
Perignon." This is a shared responsibility; there probably
would be three or four people who put these blends together at
Epernay, just like there are here, except that they're
different people except for Edmond.
I said, "I don't understand." He said, "When I taste in
pernay, I have a benchmark of experience. A wine from A?
[should taste] this way, Bouzy, this way." For each one of
these communes, he can tell you where these wines come from.
"Now, when I come to blend Dom Pe"rignon, I won't even taste
98 percent of the wines." I said, "Why not? There might be
some great ones there." He said, "We wouldn't take the risk."
Even though a commune that wasn't the best commune that they
used in Dom Perignon for some strange reason one year made a
wine that tasted great, they wouldn't blend it for Dom
Perignon, which is pretty sensible when you think about it.
So he's got a benchmark against which to taste in
Champagne, even though the amount that he is tasting is much
broader. But here he has no benchmark, he said, "so I don't
really know. I've got to taste every wine for what it is. I
can't say, 'Is this a typical Bouzy or Ay and all that?'"
He's more relaxed today, but I'd say it was eight years before
he really became what I'd consider to be somewhat relaxed
during blending. It's a great advantage for us to have that
kind of experience. Dawnine, the winemaker, came on board as
a technical assistant in 1975, so she's been here for quite a
while, which is great. That really does provide a continuity,
which is quite important. They work together very, very well.
Of course, every year Edmond says, "It's the best ever;
the best ever." Sometimes his optimism gives you something to
wonder about, but generally he's deceptively accurate about a
lot of things. He'll tell you some stories that are hard to
believe, and when you check up on them they are very often
Hicke: Is somebody going to replace him?
Wright: I suspect- -there's a young man named Richard Geoffrey from
Champagne, a very capable taster. His family is a long-time
Champenois [family]. In fact, his father was for many years,
and may still be, head of the growers' syndicate- -the group of
growers. When Moe't started the operation in Argentina, which
predated us by a year or two, there was literally a parade of
protest in the streets of fipernay, led by Richard's father,
who thought this was a horrible thing for a Champagne company
to go make anything outside of France. And now Richard works
for the company. [laughs]
He's actually a doctor; he has his M.D. He went all
through medical school, and then at the last minute he decided
he really wanted to be a Champagne maker. He's an interesting
young man. He's primarily doing blending in Epernay, but he's
also doing the Australian blending and the Spanish blending- -
blending in Spain, which is a new venture.
I expect that he's tagged to be Edmond's successor,
except that I would hope that we could work out an arrangement
so that Edmond can still be our consultant. I'm sure we'll be
able to do that. I didn't realize it until Edmond told me,
but apparently the French used to be somewhat lax about a
really strict retirement date. Well, they've gone from that
to just the opposite. Edmond claims it's in the law, although
I don't know what he means by "law." Unless you're a director
or something, the year you are sixty- five, you must retire.
He doesn't want to retire; he's young and vigorous and still
has a heck of a lot to offer. We'll find a way to deal with
it; we're not affected by French law, so we can probably work
Building and Equipping the Winery
Hicke: During the seventies, while you were crushing, pressing, and
so forth at Trefethen, you were also developing other plans
for a winery and equipment. Can you tell me about that?
Wright: Oh, yes. There Edmond played a particularly vital role. The
good fortune is that Edmond was not only a chef du cave,
taster, maker of champagne, but when he was at Mercier he was
also, if not the head of productiongenerally over there, and
we do the same thing here , you separate the winemaking
function from the production function. There are a lot of
good reasons for : that we don't have to go into, but
generally that's pretty classic. That's what we have evolved
to here, as well.
But Mercier was a little bit different, and I don't know
exactly why, but Edmond was much more involved in production
equipment and ordering and designing- -you know, getting
layouts and all that --than a typical chef du cave would be.
So he came with that background, and quite frankly, at the
time Moet merged with or, really, bought Mercier- -they called
it a merger- -despite Robert -Jean de Vogue's focus on
technology, the equipment at Mercier and some of the bottling
disgorging equipment was definitely more sophisticated and
newer than it was at Moet. So Mercier had a very good
experience there, and Edmond had done most of that.
I remember in his first period he probably spent a month
here, and we'd just meet every day, and he'd lay out what we
needed from the inside out in order to develop for the
architects what they needed to do. The architects basically
worked that way, from the inside out.
Hicke: How did you select the architects?
Wright: [laughs] That's in the book, too, but we'll get it on tape. I
was sort of looking around. At that stage I wasn't really
looking seriously for an architect, but it was getting to that
point. When we moved from Brussels, we moved to Mill Valley,
and my son's best friend at Mill Valley Middle School was a
fellow named Danny Mount joy. When we moved up here, Danny
came up a couple of times. He came up for this one visit on a
weekend, and he said, "Mr. Wright, what's happening to the
winery?" I said, "Oh, we're getting there. We're going to
start building." "Gee," he said, "my dad's an architect." I
said, "Oh, I guess that's right. I sort of forgot about
that." He said, "I think he'd be real interested in this."
[laughs] I said, "Well, that's an interesting idea. I'll go
talk to him. "
Bob, his father, was with the firm Rockrise Odermatt
Mountjoy Associates [ROMA] , which was the name of their
company at that time. Bob was one of the managing partners.
I went down, and I met with Bob and a couple of people on his
team. They put forth a proposal- -how they'd work, what they
were going to look for, and all this --and I was really
impressed with his approach. I think he had a really good
environmental approach and a feeling that it would be
inappropriate for us to build a replica, if there were such a
thing, of a French chateau or that sort of monument building.
I felt he really had a kind of organic approach.
Also, ROMA, and the people who are still there- -George
is now retired, as is Bob and, I guess, all the managing
partners there [at that time] --were very active in land-use
planning and community planning. They've done about as much
of that as pure architecture. Of course, they blended them
both, and I felt that was a very useful skill to have in
putting this building up. I guess the chemistry was right,
basically. I made the decision with not too much thought--!
mean time spent that they should be the firm we worked with.
Hicke: I would say it was an excellent decision.
Wright: I think so. It's been one of the few good ones, at least.
[ laughs ]
Hicke: It's beautiful, and it really does fit in with the area.
Wright: Yes, it really belongs here. I was pleased with that.
There was a lot of activity getting the winery designed.
Again, except for one time, my colleagues in France basically
said, "Hey, it's your baby; you go ahead." But as we got to
the end of one particular design, I thought, "Well, they're
coming over anyway, so we might as well have a meeting and
show them the model at this point." I wasn't totally
satisfied myself at that stage with what the concept was. The
concept was not totally unlike what we finally wound up with,
except the top part of the building was going to be open
archways with glass, which surprised me a little bit, because
that wouldn't have been terribly energy efficient. It looked
great on paper, but it also looked, oh, a little bit Moorish,
and the French clearly didn't like this. So therefore I
didn't. [laughs] It was the right decision.
That was the only time they made any real comment, which
certainly helped. If I had gotten into a situation where
everybody over there had their ideas, I don't think we would
have wound up with much. Whereas basically the concepts were
ROMA's in terms of its appearance. Of course, the layout and
all that was mostly Edmond's work.
The Decision to Use the Mthode Chamoenoise
Wright: Oh, I forgot to tell youI'm going back in time a little bit,
while Poirier was still there. He really believed that
technologically, Champagne was in the dark ages. From his
perspective, purely technology, you could not make a bulk-
fermented, charmat -process wine that had the same final
elegance and character, et cetera, particularly a mouth feel,
a tactile feel for the bubbles, that you could with the
bottle -fermented process. But what he loved intellectually
about the charmat process was its control of bigger batches
and things like this. He came in and said, "Don't even think
about the methode champenoise. Make it in the charmat
process," or the cuve close, as they call it. The French
never use the word charmat, even though charmat is French;
they always say cuve close.
I said, "I'm sorry, but that's got to be the dumbest
thing I've ever heard." I didn't quite say it that way, but I
said, "From a marketing point of view, that would be near
suicide, for us to come in, with a name like Moet & Chandon,
and make sparkling wine in a clearly less than 100 percent
quality process." "Oh, oui, oui , oui," but he went on and on.
He saidand this is always Poirier--"0f course, I don't make
the decisions, but from a technical point of view, this is the
way, because it's an industrial way of working, and I think we
all ought to work in an industrial way." I said, "Well,
Renaud, maybe so, but from a marketing point of view--."
This little argument finally wound up in a supposed
compromise where we would design the winery to produce 250,000
bottles- -20,000 cases- -of wine that would be true methods
champenoise, and the rest of the wine we would produce with
the transfer process, which is still bottle -fermented but
doesn't go through the riddling. Now, as it really turns out,
the transfer process is the worst of both worlds, because it
isn't all that economic; it isn't nearly as economic as the
bulk process, because you still have the bottles, and you have
to go through the bottling operation and all that. Really,
remuage itself - -riddling- -its cost per bottle is not
outrageous; it's about twenty-five cents a bottle. It's
outrageous if you try to make $1.99 wine, and you're paying $1
for tax, yes, but not when you're selling a wine at $6, $7,
$8, or more per bottle.
Renaud was absolutely convinced that for some reason, I
guess because we were Americans, there was no way we could be
capable of riddling more than 250,000 bottles a year. I said,
"Look, over there you're riddling 30,000,000." "Ah, yes, but,
but, but--." I said, "Okay, fine; that's what we'll do." But
I just knew that it would never happen. Once we started with
methode champenoise, nobody would come in and say, "Hey,
where's the transfer process?" So that's really what I did.
As a consequence, the design of the winery was a bit out of
kilter, because we really didn't have enough room for the
remuage for more than 250,000 bottles. We had to innovate a
little bit. What we did was build a second floor out of wood
to double that capacity, and then we did a few other things
and basically managed to overcome that problem.
By the time we were at the point of doing more than
500,000, we had already expanded the production outwards so
that we had additional riddling.
Hicke: Why are the tanks horizontal?
Wright: Ah! [laughs] When Edmond took me through Mercier on my first
visit, which is just down the road from MoSt, they have in
their tank room this great lighting- -red light, and a little
bit of stained glass windows- -and horizontal tanks. The
impression it gave to me generally in Champagne, almost
without exception, if you visit they won't take you into
anywhere except the riddling and maybe the disgorging, but you
never see the process, which is a shame. But this room at
Mercier, this huge hall, was really striking visually. I
asked Edmond, "Why are these horizontal?" "Oh, just because
they are." They had a way of refrigeration then. They didn't
have these two jackets at that time. They took cold water and
basically poured it into the room and over the tank, so there
was some quasi- technical reason why horizontal tanks were
I decided that would be really nifty visually, so that's
why. There are a few technical advantages. Because heat
rises, with a tall, vertical tank you have to have jackets
disbursed throughout the tank to get even cooling, and here,
because of the horizontal nature, we can have it right in the
middle on one side, and it gets good, even cooling. And
subsequently I realized that these tanks are a darned sight
better in any sort of earthquake situation than tall, vertical
tanks, which are a real problem. The cost per gallon was
maybe 5 percent more, if that; it wasn't a big difference.
Hicke: Did you ever find out why the Mercier tanks were horizontal?
Wright: Not really.
Hicke: It really is very impressive.
Wright: That was just borrowing something from somebody else.
Some Aspects of Harvesting
Hicke: There were some other things that you did. For instance, you
used smaller bins for the grapes being picked at some point.
I don't know if this is still true or not, but these are
things that I've read.
Wright: Yes, in those days gondolas were used, for the most part,
which would hold three to five tons. So we came in with a
compromise with taking what looks like a prune -picking bin,
which holds a thousand pounds, and used that as our basic
container with plastic liners. There's a good reason for
that. If you get too much piled on you get "auto crushing,"
and you start getting some degradation. On the other hand,
some of our competitors who come in believe that they ought to
go to the Champagne situation, which is fifty pounds- -little
buckets with baskets. I think that's extreme. One of the
reasons they use them in Champagne -- they say they use them for
quality, but one of the reasons they use it is that the
spacing in the vineyards is so narrow that they couldn't get a
bin through there anyway.
I would say that if you were mechanically harvesting in
the daytime and could not get the grapes into the press very
quickly, certainly that would pose a problem even with
thousand pound bins. But harvesting at night, as we do, with
mechanical harvesting, and with a very short time from the
time the grapes are picked and into the press, there's juice,
obviously, with mechanical harvesting, but it's not a problem,
really. What starts to affect tannin pickup and color pickup
and all the rest is really a combination of temperature and
time. Generally at night our average temperature for grapes
comes in at about fifty-eight degrees. Generally even in the
morning it stays cold, and then it starts to rise at about
twelve noon. Grapes picked at three o'clock in that same kind
of temperature type climate- -if it's fifty-eight at night, the
grapes get up to about seventy degrees at three o'clock.
Ideally, I think, if we could do it, we'd probably pick
everything at night.
Hicke: We're talking about the vineyards that you own, right?
Wright: Yes, and our growers.
Hicke : What about the mountain?
Wright: That we pick generally in the day because we hand-harvest them
out. We hand harvest quite a bit. We probably mechanically
harvest 60 or 70 percent and hand harvest the rest. The
smaller vineyard plots and the mountain vineyards and all that
we hand harvest, and the larger plots we mechanically harvest.
Hicke : Do you do any mechanical pruning?
Wright: No. We're pretty familiar with it. We do a little bit of
pre -pruning. Australia has done a lot of that, but I think
they're kind of going away from it because it hasn't been
totally successful for high-quality products. It has problems
of getting a regular kind of crop every year on an acceptable
level. It hasn't been quite as successful as it appeared to
be in the very beginning.
Hicke: The new presses- -what kind of presses did you buy, and how did
they turn out?
Wright: Originally we bought the Vaslin presses, and they were the
press that was pretty common in Champagne at that time. The
alternative presses at that time were the traditional pressoir
champ eno is , which just isn't very efficient- -hard to clean and
a lot of other things .
Hicke: What is the difference between these?
Wright: The traditional one- -we have one up there [points]; we have
sort of a museum in front --is sort of a basket that has a
rather wide diameter to depth ratio, so it's not very deep,
but it's [wide]. The classic held four metric tons, which is
called un marc. If you go to Champagne and start listening to
what their production was in a day, they always speak in
marcs, which is really four metric tons. "How many grapes did
you sell?" Oh, quatorze marcs," or "trente marcs." Then they
have a whole regulatory formula for the extraction from that.
So you've got the cuvee, the premier taille, deuxieme taille.
This is all very strictly regulated as to how many liters per
marc you may extract for each one of these, and quite rightly
so, because you start getting more pressure on and you pick up
tannins. This is the best juice.
Hicke: The cuvee.
Wright: Generally the premier taille and the cuvee, after being
fermented separately, are put together for the blends. The
deuxieme taille, if it's used at all by somebody like Moet,
would be used in the demisec and the extra dry, because the
sugar masks some faults. But the reality today is that we
take the deuxieme taille, and we trade that to a company
called Marne et Champagne.
Wright: Marne et Champagne now is, I think, the second largest
producer in Champagne, and they do a lot of private label
stuff at a lower price for the French market. But see,
they've got contracts for grapes, too, so they get cuvee and
premier taille in their operations, so we'll trade deuxieme
taille to them. I don't know what the ratio is, but probably
five liters of this for every liter of that; that sort of
thing goes on all the time.
Hicke: For every liter of cuvee?
Wright: So as a practical matter, we don't really use the deuxieme
taille there. Here we do the same thing, a little more
stringent than they do, just to be a bit on the safe side, and
we don't use the deuxieme taille; we bulk that out, and we use
the cuvee and the premier taille.
Hicke: Why do you separate them, if they are then--?
Wright: Well, just to be safe. We always taste this. I guess on
average, we have probably utilized only 80 percent of the
premier taille in our final blends and bulked the rest off as
Hicke: It's just control?
Wright: Yes. And then it varies by year, too. You'll find some years
where even the deuxieme taille tastes pretty good, except we
still don't do that. There are other years when even getting
a good cuvee adds a little more difficulty.
Hicke: I have a note, "Champagne -style vineyards,
now what that means .
but I'm not sure
Wright: I guess just this little vineyard out in front.
Hicke: Oh, the narrow--?
Wright: Yes. That was done exactly according to the way you would
train and prune a vineyard in Champagne . I think some day we
should, but we've never made a cuvee specifically from that
vineyard, probably because the wall is a little hot and so
forth, so we've always just blended those grapes in with the
others. But fairly early on we did start using somewhat
narrower spacing than what was typical. In those days I felt
it was interesting, from a cash- flow point of view. In
Carneros soils, which aren't very vigorous, we'd probably get
grapes a little bit earlier in terms of reasonable tonnage. I
also thought there had to be a reason why they plant so close
there. A lot of our Carneros vineyards were planted, let's
say, rather than 480 or 500 vines to the acre, more like at
700 and 750.
Subsequently, what's been learned, which is not
applicable to every situation, but I think in a lot of
situations- -well, the conventional wisdom when we started was,
"Studies at Davis show over time, maybe in the sixth year, if
you plant 1,000 vines to the acre or you plant 500 vines to
the acre, you're going to get the same tons to the acre. So
why not plant 500 to the acre, because it's going to cost you
less money?" That was the conventional wisdom. Along with
that conventional wisdom it was believed that if you let the
foliage proliferate it would provide a certain amount of
protection against sunburn; if you have very vigorous soils,
that's all right. Even today you see a typical vineyard like
that, and in July or so it's just shade all over.
Subsequently we've been beginning to learn, more from
New Zealand experience than from California experience, that
this shading provides some real problems in that canes that
are shaded are not going to be as fruitful the next year. And
from a quality point of view, for reasons that I forget- -
they're sound, logical, scientific reasons- -this vigorous
growth actually creates a kind of vegetative, herbal -like
taste in a lot of these grapes, particularly Cabernet, but not
only Cabernet. So there's been a complete turnaround now,
where we're going to vineyard training systems where you
suppress this excessive vigor by planting closer together
and/or by training upwards, and by hedging- -by actually
trimming the shoots as they grow.
When I first started, I asked Keith Bowers, "There must
be something to this hedging." He says, "Nah, what do you
want to do--" and he used some analogy like cutting your veins
to clip these wonderful, beautiful leaves. So that was a no-
no in those days, and now it's a practice that's being
recommended for quality. It's really pretty interesting.
Hicke: So you're starting to do more of that?
Wright: Oh, yes, at our Carneros vineyards. This phylloxera problem
that's developing may actually be a bit of a blessing in
disguise , because in some of these vineyards that are
developing phylloxera, pulling out a vineyard that was planted
eight by twelve and I imagine you could probably take a tax
write-off at that point; I know you can- -and replanting it
today in a four by six or something, it also turns out that
you're going to get more production year in and year out.
You're going to take something that gave four tons to the
acre, and actually you're going to get about five and a half
or six tons to the acre, and you're going to get better
quality. So over the long run, it might be good for overall
quality of vines growing in the coastal valley, and will
actually be economic.
We decided early on when we got into this that the
conventional way of grafting, which was field grafting--!
didn't feel very comfortable with it, particularly in mountain
soils and Carneros soils, so we decided to do bench grafts.
There wasn't any real good supply, so we did our own bench
grafts, and we continue to do those today; we have a nursery.
As long as we got into that, we started looking at roots tock.
I guess I wasn't so much anti-A x R--well, I was a little
worried about phylloxera because of its parental heritage
having a lot of Aramon in it, which is a vinifera grape.
Also, S04, which was a variety that was used in
Champagne- -not huge quantities, because with the chalk in the
soil they used some exotic rootstock that we wouldn't have to
use herewe got in pretty early, so a lot of our own
vineyards are on S04 rootstock, which appears to be totally
resistant to phylloxera. We're fortunate in that sense. But
now we have a lot of other roots tock that we've been working
on, so we've got a complete nursery inventory of roots tocks
that are now coming into favor. It's run as kind of a little
business on the side. It's primarily for our own needs, but
we do sell some.
Hicke: Do you have any phylloxera?
Wright: Yes, one little patch over in Yountville. We haven't seen any
in Carneros yet. I think we'd be rather naive if we thought
it wasn't going to come. It's just that I'm not sure it's
going to come with the rapidity that some people think. A lot
of vineyards in Napa Valley are getting to the point anyway
where you should probably be pulling out 5 percent every year
and replanting. It's not quite as bad as it seems.
The Cuvee s
Hicke : I have another note that says you developed a 100 percent
Pinot noir cuvee. Can you tell me about that?
Wright: Sure. We found when we started that the Pinot Noir wines were
really the ones that we were most comfortable with in a
blend- -that and the Pinot Blanc; the Chardonnay was still for
us a little aggressive. However, the Pinot Noir (even the
cuvee) was fairly heavily tinged with pink; the French would
say tache. If you really do some research into old Champagne
books, that was the color of Champagne back in the nineteenth
century, particularly in good years when it was warm. I don't
quite understand why, and I think I know better now because we
do some things, but presumably once the phylloxera epidemic
started and they re-grafted onto American rootstock, this
particular color, which was called lion's mane or corail- -kind
Now, the premier taille has even a bit more color to it.
So for color reasons we felt that the more colored, tache ,
lots were going to present a problem in the blend, not because
they didn't taste really right but because they gave up color
that was perhaps a little too pink. So we decided--! guess
really I decided- -to come out with a whole new cuvee, and we
originally called it Cuvee de Pinot Noir. That got started
and became very, very successful. Then we changed the name to
Blanc de Noirs. It had nothing to do with marketing, nothing
to do with, "Hey, would the consumers like this?" It really
had to do with the fact that we had this, and it had a
wonderful taste and different; it's got a fruitier character
For reasons that have to do with treatment of juice, et
cetera, the color is less today than it used to be, but it's
still- -where we get our Pinot noir for the Blanc de Noirs
cuvee is really primarily from Carneros, and that does provide
a slightly higher degree color, because the pH is lower and
the color is a bit more stable. But most importantly, Pinot
noir vines from a lot of the Carneros area have more of that
strawberry flavor, true Pinot flavor, that is very attractive
in the Blanc de Noirs. It really comes through. It's really
a unique wine in many respects.
Hicke: When did you start doing this?
Wright: Oh, gosh, the first Cuvee de Pinot Noir I think we made in
'74, but without reserve wines. That would have been cuvee
753. I know we made some from the '75 vintage. I'll have to
look. I bet we still have a couple of bottles around,
[laughs] I must say, the first few cuvees we made, we labeled
on the bottle 174 and 374 (that's right, we did make a Blanc
de Noirs), and they were bottled in '75. Particularly the
174, the Brut, was the least -good wine we ever made. We
thought it tasted pretty great at the time [laughs], but upon
reflection five, six, seven, eight years later, we realized
that we've been improving all the time.
I think the common perception on the part of consumers
and a lot of writers, journalists, trade, and so forth, is
that quality wine can only be made in small quantities. I
think there's a lot of truth to that with red wine, because
with red wine you are looking for personality and what I call
contrapuntal notes. There's a polyphony going on there, where
you're looking at contrasts between hints of cassis and tannin
and all this sort of stuff. Your developed, great, red wines
are almost always from single vineyards, and I think you get
some of that character literally by hand, punching the cap
down rather than pumping over. Of course, you are finally
aging them in fifty-gallon barrels; that's important.
But with sparkling wine your biggest enemy is oxidation.
Our initial fermentors were 3,600-gallon fermenters. We still
have some out there that we use for experimental lots. We
moved from 3, 600- gallon to 500-hectoliter , so that's 14,000
gallons or something like that, and the quality really
improved. Today we have those, and then we have 1,000-
hectoliters, which are about 25,000 gallons. There's less
oxidation because there's more volume per surface area. So
long as you have an efficient cooling system, refrigeration,
there's no disadvantage. Of course, in the old days before
refrigeration, you couldn't even think of fermenting in that
kind of quantity because it would get too hot; it would just
kill all the yeast with the heat of fermentation.
As we got not only experienced, but also by using larger
tanks, we felt we improved quality. The other real quality
advantage to being bigger when you're in the sparkling wine
business is that you've got more notes to pick from- -more
vineyards to pick from. What you're looking for is a certain
base line of quality, but what you want within that are
differences. The worst would be one variety from one
vineyard, because that's too --the French use the word monocru;
it's just too one dimensional. A cru is like a vineyard.
Also the vagaries , because year in and year out that
wine is going to change. The same vineyard, year in and year
out, even in California, produces different wines. But,
funnily enough, if you work with sixty- five different
vineyards, as a whole they're each different from the year
before, but when you put them all together the differences of
the blend that year are not so different from the prior years.
Hicke : So consistency is important?
Wright: Consistency is certainly important, yes. Not consistency to a
mediocre level, but consistency as a quality factor. Really,
for quality in sparkling wine you're looking much more for
harmony and balance. I sort of compare it to Mozart. I think
of red wine as being kind of Bach- like, very polyphonic and
moving this way [motions] and this way. Champagne and
sparkling wine are moving in a very chord- like fashion, so you
want everything there where it should be, not dissonant.
Dissonance in sparkling wine is definitely a fault, where it's
an attribute in great red wines. My music comes into this a
Hicke: I like that; it's a nice analogy.
More on Presses
Hicke: We started to talk about the presses, and we got as far as
your first one, but we got sidetracked.
Wright: Oh, yes. We wound up, because of efficiency reasons, et
cetera, discarding the idea of using the traditional press,
which most of Champagne has, too. At that time in Champagne
the two presses that were being used instead of the
traditional press were the Vaslin press, which is what we
chose, and the other was generally called the Wilmes press,
but was also called the bladder press. We didn't like that as
well, because if you look at the bladder as it was then,
you've got a rubber inner tube. When you put the air in
there, that pushes out. What we don't like about that is that
the room for filtration is only around the circumference. As
the juice passes through the grapes there's a little bit of
filtration that goes on, which we like. The bladder press
didn't do that as well as the Vaslin.
Hicke: Especially when it's expanded, as you say.
Wright: Yes, and it's expanded in order to press the juice out. The
Vaslin press is horizontal as well, but it goes this way
[indicates]. As you got pressure on, you've got your plates
here, and you've got this much grapes, so you're getting the
filtration effect through a bigger tank.
Hicke: It's pressing in from each side.
Wright: Yes. We still have one Vaslin left, but there have been
changes in the technology of pressing, and today the best
press, particularly for sparkling wine, is what we call the
tank press. Wilmes makes one, and Bucher, which now owns
Vaslin, makes another. They were Swiss, but they've expanded.
That's a design where you've got the cylinder, and on the
bottom you've got the bladder. That's blowing up this way
[indicates], and you're getting the benefit of the filtration.
Also, .because you're using- -as you were here [points], too--
compressed air, you've got a lot more control over the
pressure. It's all computerized; so it's a step upwards.
You could chemically measure how well you are pressing,
principally by taking your phenol content. If your phenols
are low, that's good. Now, it's not good for red wine,
because phenols give you the tannin, et cetera, but
particularly in champagne and sparkling wine the lower, within
certain limits, the phenols the better the quality is for
sparkling wine. The bubbles in sparkling wine amplify a lot
of factors , particularly the sense of bitterness and
astringency. If you were down talking to Bob Mondavi, he
would say, "Well, you know, I like to get more middle body in
my Chardonnay, and I get that by grape skin contact for
twenty -four hours. It's picking up more flavor, and it's
picking up some tannins." It's developing what he calls
middle body, which really means that in the mouth and as you
swallow, it's not empty. Sometimes some still wines are kind
of empty and short.
Interestingly enough, if that wine becomes bubbly, that
middle body turns itself tactually and organoleptically into a
sense of bitterness and astringency. Far from it adding
middle body, it actually makes the wine short on the palate.
The bubbles really accentuate the palate's ability of
evaluating bitterness -astringency. The one thing a champagne
really should not be is bitter and/or astringent. It's really
a very major fault, and there are a lot of sparkling wines
that are. When I taste, it's one of the things I probably put
most emphasis on- -the cleanliness of the finish and the lack
of astringent and/or bitter character.
Some of that is related to grape varieties, but if
you've got the right grape varieties, like Chardonnay and
Pinot noir, the real factor then becomes how you press. So
the pressing is a very, very important part of the quality.
If you use a continuous press, it's absolutely disastrous for
sparkling wine, because it just presses everything out of
there. And/or if you are sloppy in the way you press. And we
feel that if you crush prior to putting the grapes into the
press, you are picking up phenols and tannins that you
Really the philosophy is different. Within reason- -I'm
probably exaggerating to make a point- -the philosophy of
still -wine making, particularly in California, is kind of,
"Get everything possible out of the grape." You want maximum
flavor and body and all this. When you're making a base wine
for sparkling wine, it's just the opposite: "Don't extract;
just be subtle, subtle, subtle." So it's a different
philosophy. It certainly does mean, in my opinion, that
somebody who maybe has been trained or has skills in still-
wine making isn't necessarily going to make a very good
It's a really different approach and
The Domaine Chandon Restaurant
[Interview 2: May 6, 1991 ]##
Hicke: Last time we just finished talking about the building of the
winery, and you told me a lot about that. I wanted to ask you
about the decision to include a restaurant. Was that part of
the original plans, or did it come a little bit later?
Wright: That came on fairly early. The winery site, which is right
here in Yountville, I had picked for a couple of reasons.
One, it was very accessible; i.e., we're really at the end of
the freeway when people come up to the wineries .
Hicke: To visitors and also to the airport and other- -
Wright: Yes. Up until that time, most of the wineries in the Napa
Valley were really north of Yountville. There were a few that
were south, like Clos du Val and Trefethen. Since most of our
grapes were going to come from the southern part of the valley
because we need cooler climates, it made more sense to be
Then I felt a vigorous visitors' program was essential
to marketing, and therefore we were going to have a winery
that was certainly going to be open to visitors, with, I
hoped, a very well-thought-out visitors' program. I didn't
want to particularly create more traffic up valley. [laughs]
You see, when you get up there the road narrows, so really the
site here was ideal for being right on the cloverleaf at the
end of the freeway.
That was the reasoning behind picking the site, and then
once we saw the site I felt what I wanted to do was create an
experience where people trying the wine after the tour would
not just sort of walk up to a bar and taste a bunch of
different things. I thought it would be preferable to have a
nice environment and be relaxed about all that. That was one
thing. Second, since we're paying a tax that's twenty times
that on still wine, you don't give this away very easily, so I
felt we really wanted to charge for tastings. I also felt we
wanted to charge for tastings because, quite frankly, people
usually don't appreciate something unless they pay for it.
I notice that now most of the champagne houses charge.
Yes, and some of the others are doing that, too. The law at
that stage was quite explicit that to have an on-premise sale
license you had to have a restaurant, essentially serving
regular meals at regular hours, not just a cold cut or
something. So in order to have a facility whereby we could
charge for the tasting, the law at that point was that we
really had to have a restaurant. That was how it all came
When that decision was made and I discussed the overall
plan with my colleagues in France, they said, "Well, my dear
John, if you're going to have a restaurant, it has to be a
good one, you know. Think of our image." [laughs] So they
were quite insistent, and I think properly so, that we put in
a high- class restaurant rather than a hamburger joint or
something like that.
What was surprising to me was that I felt the novelty,
if you will, of a French- owned winery producing sparkling wine
and the location where we were would be such that we could
probably expect the restaurant to be reasonably well attended
and booked up because of everybody who would be wanting to
come to the winery. As long as they were here, they could
come in and have a meal. Just the opposite occurred.
[laughs] The restaurant was an immediate, instant success in
the sense of it having developed a notoriety really much
stronger and earlier than the visit to the winery as an
experience. I'd say almost immediately after the restaurant
opened we had too many bookings, really, so we were booked out
way in advance. At the same time, we didn't have that many
visitors to the winery, so it was sort of the tail wagging the
dog.. exactly the opposite of what I thought would happen.
Did people who came to the restaurant go to the tasting room
Not necessarily; not at all. It was quite interesting. It
was the cause of developing a theory that I have that I think
is still valid, and that is that people who are at least
Interested in food and wine will be immediate experts on
restaurants, with absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever. I.e.,
they'll go to a restaurant, they'll like the experience- -be it
the food, the service, the ambience; hopefully it's really got
to be all three- -and then they'll get back on the phone and
call all their friends and say, "I just discovered this blah,
blah, blah." Right? The good news of that is that word of
mouth works just like wildfire in restaurants. It is really a
very, very fast kind of communication chain. Of course, if
things are good, that's good; if things are bad, it can go the
With wine, I think people are just really still very
inhibited about recommending a wine to other people. They
don't quite trust their own judgment, which is really pretty
silly, because most people have very good palates and
shouldn't have any inhibition about saying, "Gee, I found this
wine, and it is really good," but they won't do that. So word
of mouth in wine is a very effective form of marketing
communication, but it works much slower than restaurants do.
It's fascinating. It totally, really surprised me.
Hicke: If you had to do it again, would you also open a restaurant?
Wright: I would. It was a real struggle. The original kitchen was
ill designed for the kind of food we were doing, even though
supposedly our architects had engaged a very qualified
restaurant consultant. He simply didn't know what it took to
put out really high-quality cuisine which is all cooked to
order, so the kitchen was down below and it was too small. We
struggled with that for about three years, and then we built a
new kitchen. I thought, "Oh, these chefs; Christ, they're
awfully fussy." But it really did make a difference. The
only way I would ever do it over again is that I would have a
chef there as my main consultant, and ideally it would be the
chef who was going to run the place. [laughs]
Hicke: Who was your first chef, and how did you find him?
Wright: The first chef was a young man [Udo Nechutnys] who had studied
under Paul Bocuse, who is German but who has lived most of his
life in France. He came over, and shortly thereafter the
sous-chef, a very young man, Philippe Jeanty, came over.
Philippe is from Champagne and had been a protege of a chef
who is actually employed by Moet in France. Philippe had
worked for Joseph Thuet in Epernay. Joseph had come over for
our opening to help we had this big opening- -and he
recommended to me that as qualified as Udo, the original chef,
was, he thought it would be a good idea to have a good back
up, so Philippe came over.
After about a year, Udo decided he wanted to go and do
other things, so he left and Philippe became the chef, and he
has been the chef since then.
Since 1978 or '79?
Yes. I think the restaurant opened in June of '77.
So he's been there for thirteen years.
The Visitors ' Center and Museum
Hicke: When you opened the winery and the visitors' center in '77, it
also included a museum. Did anything very memorable happen
when you opened it?
Wright: There was a young lady who was just working for us in the
vineyards, Judy, who turned out to have had her master's
degree as a museum curator. [laughter]. We always had people
like that around. So we gave Judy the job of coming up with a
concept for the museum, and she really did a great job.
Hicke : Why did you want a museum?
Wright: Education, number one. Number two, to make the connection to
the French parent. It's interesting that even today that
connection, even for people who come here, is not as strong as
I would have thought it would be. I'm not sure I know why. I
think the product itself, the sparkling wine or champagne, has
a strong image as a product, and then I think that Chandon as
a producer has a very strong image within that. Whereas I
would, have thought the connection to the world's largest
Champagne producer would be very important to people, it
doesn't seem to be as important as I would have expected,
which says something- -actually, that consumers are a hell of a
lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. Rightfully
so, I think they judge us, not so much consciously as
subconsciously, on our own merits and don't try to say either,
"They've got to be good because their parent is the biggest
Champagne producer," or vice versa.
Hicke: You think it has something to do with the fact that you
decided to call it sparkling wine rather than champagne?
Wright: No, I don't think so. I think most people will still say
champagne anyway. We do feel that the labeling of the product
and the way we refer to it should be as sparkling wine, but
we're not paranoid about it.
Hicke: You were also the first winery to call it sparkling wine?
Wright: As far as I know, yes.
Hicke : How about Schramsberg?
Wright: No, Jack [Davies] at Schramsberg still uses "champagne" on
their label. It was a bit controversial at the time. All
these so-called marketing experts in the press and other
places said we would really be a failure unless we put
"champagne" on the label, but we went ahead and did what we
thought we should do .
Hicke: Did you actually talk to Jack Davies at Schramsberg very much
when you were starting out?
Wright: Yes, we told him that we were coming in. I took Robert -Jean
de Vogue over to meet Jack. Jack was very cordial and very
helpful. He sort of laughed and said, "Gee, I'll be able to
sell Schramsberg to the people who want to compare my wine to
yours . "
Hicke: That was a nice way to look at it.
Riddling and the Very Laree Machines
Hicke: I want to ask you about riddling and the development of your
Very Large Machines. Can you tell me about that?
Wright: For a long time people have looked at trying improve the
productivity of the classical hand - remiage or riddling
process. Of course, to a lot of people just looking at it,
the first thought would be, "Rather than have people turn
these bottles, why don't you have a machine on each one of
these racks that turns them?" That's been tried, and, in
fact, way back. The only problem is that it doesn't save you
any money, because the real cost in riddling is setting the
bottles on the racks, taking them off, and the space that they
take. We could store about 120 bottles a square foot when
we're aging the wine, but once you put the bottles on the
racks, on an annual basis --it takes something like six weeks
for the cycle- -you' re only getting about 10 bottles to a
square foot. So annualized space requirements are enormous,
and partly because of the inefficiency of that design, which
is needed to do the proper job of riddling.
Hicke: The triangular- -
Wright: The ptipitre, they call them in French, which means "pulpit,"
an interesting name, I always thought. The cycle plus the
space does make it very inefficient, and it doesn't save an
awful lot of money to just mechanize that. What does save
money and improve efficiency, really, is to come up with an
idea where you can get more bottles stored in a given area.
You can do that not only with the geometry but also the
cycles. If you can do something that will do the same thing
in ten days rather than forty days, that's where the real
improvement comes .
There were two developments, actually. Probably the
inventor- -I'm sure they are; they claim to be- -of machine
riddling was Korbel, going quite a ways back, I would guess
probably in the early sixties. They had a kind of a table
that the bottles came and went "tshhhh" and then over. They
saved a fair amount of space , but they also worked at a much
faster rate because they moved more than once a day, whereas
in hand riddling you only turn the bottles once a day.
Hicke: Hand riddling takes so long simply because it takes so long
for however many people you have to go through and turn the
Wright: No, because you could always use more people. It's just that
it appears that the motion used in hand riddling is such that
if you attempted to turn the bottle more than once a day, the
sediment after it's moved doesn't settle enough to permit a
second or a third turn. Now, that's probably partially
correct. It's probably also correct that nobody's really
thought about having two shifts- -like, "We'll have one riddler
come in in the morning from seven to three, then we'll have
another one from three to eleven, and we'll have another one
from eleven to seven."
I suspect that in theory that would work. The reason
that, in practice, it doesn't and this is a very strange but
real phenomenon- -is that it's a very personalized thing, so
it's almost impossible to take a block of wine and switch
riddlers on it. Riddler B coming in from three to eleven will
not do the right job on Riddler A's wine, and that's the only
way it could work. It's just very strange, but every person
has their own technique. We find that if somebody is going to
go on vacation- -we allocate blocks to each riddler, and that's
their block. They can work any time of the day or night,
really, that they feel like. They don't punch a time clock;
they just have 36,000 bottles or whatever it is --it's usually
somewhere between 36,000 and 45,000 bottles. That's a day's
Hicke: And they're responsible for those?
Wright: That's right. .If they're going to go on vacation, they go
when that block is finished.
Hicke: That's really interesting.
Okay, we were back at Korbel.
Wright: Korbel had developed a system, and then the Spanish took that
and modified it a bit and did some other things. All of those
systems, which work mechanically very well, pretty much relied
on special fining agents to flocculate the yeast. We were
very, very cautious about that, because we felt and continue
to feel that those fining agents that are based a lot on
bentonite do tend to strip flavor a bit; so we continued to
riddle in the classical manner for eight years or so. Then
there was a machine that was invented in France, called the
gyropalette, that had actually been in use for a fair amount
of time in some Champagne houses; Piper Heidsieck by the late
seventies or early eighties was 100 percent on those machines.
We started experimenting with those, and we found that
we could take our regular wine that didn't have any particular
fining agent in it for the purposes of improving riddling. We
do use some isinglass and tannin to make the wine brilliant;
that's sort of the classical fining agent. We did our trials,
and we found that the gyropalette actually did work without
having to adjust anything in fining. We bought about twenty
of them, and when we started looking at them, the then vice
president of production here at Chandon, Gino Zepponi , who was
really a very brilliant engineer as well as a great production
person and a great person, came up with this idea: "Each one
of these machines has two motors . As long as we have to have
two motors and the hook-up to the computers and so on, we
might as well expand from one bin to a bigger concept."
So he went down the road here and talked to a fellow
named John Kahlua, who builds various types of things. He
used to have a big machine shop right here in Napa; he now is
up in Lake County. John was very good at reducing these
things to practice, so he came up with the design for what
Gino called the Very Large Machine; we didn't have another
name for it. It actually does about four thousand bottles at
a time rather than four hundred.
Hicke: It turns four thousand bottles?
Wright: Yes. But it still only uses two motors, so it's more
efficient than the gyropalette.
Hicke: How many times a day are they turned?
Wright: Three times, generally. I must say my French colleagues were
a bit horrified when they came. Not horrified with the idea
of machines, because they're using them in Champagne, but
there's a certain amount of skepticism about, "Can these
Americans really do some of these things?" When they came
over and saw this huge machine, they were absolutely sure it
wasn't going to work. Actually, in some ways it really works
better than the small machines.
Hicke: It's the classic story of American ingenuity.
Wright: Well, it is. Although really the design of that machine,
because of its size, is not very practical in Champagne,
because most champagne houses do their riddling in the caves,
and the ceilings aren't very high.
Hicke: Was there some question about the size- -the number of cases
you were going to be producing?
Wright: Going back to the riddling, I think I mentioned earlier that
they thought that producing more than about 20,000 cases with
the classical method would be very, very risky. It proved out
that it really wasn't that risky at all.
Hicke: You probably told me last time how many you are producing this
Wright: About 400,000 cases, or 5,000,000 bottles. The Champagne
people always talk in terms of bottles; it's a bit grander,
Hicke: Tell me about Fred's Friends.
Wright: Our first couple of years when we started, we were making wine
at Trefethen. Our deuxi&me taille, the last cut on our press,
we'd never use for sparkling wine. Yet when you get to that
last cut, as a still wine you have the appearance in the mouth
of a little bit more body because there's more tannin in the
wine, and the acids are a little less so it's a bit softer.
We thought, "Gee, this is really pretty nice wine just to
drink as it is ." I forget now why, but we decided we wouldn't
just put it on the bulk market, which is what we do today. I
think it was partly because we were making sparkling wine, but
it was going to take three years or so before it was ready to
drink, so we thought, "Let's have a wine that we could enjoy
ourselves." So we bottled some of that- -a thousand cases or
Came time to sell it and we were just going to sell it
to friends of the company and employees. Michaela Rodeno, who
was then our v.p. of marketing and communications, came up
with the idea of Fred's Friends. I guess it was shortly after
Fred Chandon had been here on a visit. He's a very charming
person. He took us all out to lunch, the whole group; we had
about twenty people working then. As I recall at that time,
he had promisedwhich he later delivered on- -that after we
had sold a million bottles, everybody would get a trip to
France. Everybody was quite intrigued with that; I'm talking
mostly about people on the bottling lines, et cetera. So
Michaela just came up with the idea of calling it Fred's
Hicke: Did you then just market it here in the winery?
Wright: Yes, pretty much. We only market it at the winery.
Hicke: You don't do it anymore?
Wright: Oh, yes, we still have Fred's Friends. Oh, sure. It's got a
pretty interesting label.
Hicke: I thought I saw it there, but then you said you were sending a
lot out in bulk.
Wright: First of all, we think- -we very definitely think- -we should
stick to our knitting, which is to concentrate on sparkling
Hicke: You were saying you had doubts about making still wine?
Wright: We'd never felt that we should attempt to be in the still wine
business in any meaningful way, because we feel it just
diverts our attention from what our real business is. Making
a little bit of Chardonnay, like Fred's Friends, doesn't
really divert us very much because it's really part of the
champagne or sparkling winemaking process. It's generally the
deuxi&me taille, so we don't oak the wine or anything like
that. We never have enough to sell very much of, so we have
never been tempted to commercialize the product. I suspect if
we had, people- -in a way unfortunately- -will only take humor
in wine a certain way. There's a boundary there, and I
suspect it's the type of wine, too; tongue-in-cheek can go so
far, but it can't go too far.
I think if you're only going to sell a modest amount of
wine- -Randall Grahm has been very successful down in Santa
Cruz. He's got some wonderful names for some of his wines. I
think partly the wine itself, and with Randall's personality
and a few other things, I don't think he has a problem selling
those wines. But if he made them in greater quantities, I
suspect he would have a bit of a problem.
Hicke: You don't feel people will walk into Maxim's and ask for a
Fred's Friends with their dinner?
Wright: Probably not. [laughter]
More on Marketing
Hicke: Since we're talking about marketing, let's develop that a
little bit. When you started selling your wine, what were
your decisions about advertising and the best way to target
Wright: I came from a background that originally was technical --in
chemistry- -but I really worked most of my life in market
development and marketing types of things. I've never made a
big deal about it; I've never tried to paint a portrait of
myself as some sort of marketing expert. But I think partly
because of that background I developed a certain healthy, I
would hope, disrespect for attempting to differentiate a
product purely through marketing hype. It depends on the
kinds of products, but certainly with a product like Chandon,
where the category itself has a very strong image- -a little
too strong in a way. It's associated, by and large, with
celebration and special occasions and this sort of thing, so I
don't think you have to develop some sort of mystique about
"champagne," because it has it already. In fact, it probably
has a little too much; we'd like to see its use more general
and have worked on that.
I really felt that 90 percent of our "marketing effort"
should be devoted to the product. What marketing is all about
is creating customers, and in this particular area I think the
product is absolutely the most important thing. So in a sense
we have invested in the product by really being very selective
about our vineyards , where we bought our vineyards , where we
got our grapes from, not attempting to chisel on price. We've
never attempted to buy grapes cheaply or buy cheap grapes .
We've never compromised with aging profiles, or not to
any significant extent. I would say that in the very
beginning our aging of Chandon was not ideal, and it was less
than I would have liked it to have been. It wasn't so much,
interestingly enough, because we wanted to age less to make
more money; it was that the demands of the marketplace were
such that we almost couldn't say no: "If they have to have
it, they have to have it." We went as low as fourteen months
at one point early in our game on aging. The wine's okay, but
it's not really what it should be, so we've always worked on
pushing that up- -you know, other sorts of things, where if it
isn't in the bottle it isn't there. That's number one for me
in terms of marketing.
Number two and for this we really borrowed a lot from
our parent company. Moet in Europe spends virtually nothing
on advertising. Their whole focus is public relations, and
part of that is --rightly or wrongly, but I tend to think it's
perhaps more right than wrong, or correct- -if you have a
rather prestigious product and you over -advertise that
product, you tend to lose its sense of prestige. This is
particularly true of Dom Perignon, for example. You will
never see a Dom Perignon ad, and yet if you do advertising
research on consumers, they will mention that they've seen Dom
Hicke: It's a familiar name, yes.
Wright: Quite frankly, I was not at all a believer that advertising
would ever do very much for us. We have from time to time put
money in advertising, much more than I thought we should, and
I don't think it has ever had any benefit. Public relations,
getting some recognition in the media is important, but really
more important than that is the public relations that takes
place right here at the winery. We get now 150,000 people a
year, and if they like the product and they like the
experience, they'll be good consumers, and they'll tell their
friends about it. I just don't think there's any substitute
for that, so that's really where we put most of our thoughts
and our effort.
Hicke: Who came up with the idea of the stars and the line drawings?
Wright: Well, a lot of that was from our original package -de sign lady,
and she still does our package design. Her name is Susan
Pate. She immediately saw the star in Chandon and really
focused on that, as I guess any good designer would. It's
interesting to me that, not because they were all bad, but
just historically we've probably had four or five different ad
agencies of one sort or another. I think what frustrates me
about- -all of them had some good, creative people in their
agencies, but they'd always look for something other than the
product itself to kind of get a hook. That always mystified
me, that they've got to play with something else rather than
the thing in itself. I can understand part of that, but I've
never really felt that any ad agency that we've ever had has
really understood what we're really trying to do and how to
communicate that .
It's probably not possible to do that. Secondly, the
nature of the fine wine business is that- -my guess is that the
consumer population we have for Chandon is at most maybe a
million people a year- -if that- -that consume our product, out
of a population of 240 million. So it's not very effective to
use a mass communications form of marketing to a market that's
not a mass market. It just simply isn't. But we haven't
found the right way yet. [laughs] We've done all right, but
I'd like to find more efficient ways.
Hicke: Well, you developed the direct marketing through the Chandon
Wright: Yes, that's the thing that we really are working on now. It's
quite possible that the club, in which there are now about
ninety thousand members , might be accounting for 50 percent of
our total sales.
Hicke: Is that right?
Wright: It's kind of hard to trap, but our research shows that a
Chandon householdnot the individual necessarily- -claims to
consume two cases of Chandon a year. Generally when people
are interviewed about their consumption of beverage alcohol
products they underestimate, so I don't know in this case. If
that were the case, then that would be 180,000 cases a year,
or about half of our sales.
Hicke: That's very impressive.
Wright: Yes, it is. I tend to think maybe it's not quite that much,
but it appears that Chandon is a product that, when people
really enjoy the category and then the brand, their annual
consumption is pretty substantial. It doesn't take that much
to go through a case of champagne. [laughs] Not as an
individual, but if you have a party or something.
So that's very important, and of course classic, direct
selling is pretty difficult if not impossible because of the
laws. Also, I'm not sure that even if we had that opportunity
we wish to compete with our conventional distribution channels
and try to sell directly to people. But to communicate with
consumers and to do things for them, and to have these Chandon
Club events and come out with a quarterly newsletter, et
cetera, all keeps Chandon in their minds and reminds them from
time to time that we're there.
Hicke: You have a special bottling for the Chandon Club?
Wright: We do, yes. We have a Chandon Club Cuvee .
Hicke: How many cases?
Wright: Oh, a couple of thousand.
Hicke: That adds to the feeling of being part of what's going on, I
Wright: I think so.
Hicke: Let's go back to the growth starting in the late seventies.
Did you try to sell in California and throughout the United
States? Then eventually I know you went to Australia, Japan,
Canada, and other countries.
Wright: The introduction of the product in late '76, Christmas of '76,
was purely in California. Even today California accounts for
close to 50 percent of our total market. Shortly thereafter,
in '77, we launched, if you will, the brand in places like New
York, Florida, Chicago --the major markets.
Hicke : How did you do that?
Wright: Stu Harrison, who is now the marketing guy for Opus [One] at
Mondavi, had come from Almaden [Vineyards]. Stu and I decided
originally in California that we would sell direct. By that I
mean we wouldn't go through a wholesaler; we'd have a person
in southern California and a person in northern California,
and we'd call on retailers and restaurateurs, more or less
with the feelingwhich was correct- -that certainly in the
beginning we didn't need to sell the product to every little
restaurant and corner store. We still don't, for that matter.
Stu hired two people, one for the south and one for the
north, and they got right on board and starting doing some
very nice things. Then Stu spent the rest of his time
interviewing wholesalers in the rest of the country, starting
obviously with bigger markets, and making some decisions about
who those wholesalers should be. However, at that stage my
colleagues from France convinced me that the then agent -
importer for Moet and for Hennessy, Schieffelin & Company,
should be brought in.
I was somewhat skeptical about it, depending on the
terms, because in those days the mark-ups, the margins, that
the classic importer-primary distributor folks had was based
really on their role as an importer, so it was based on their
being the marketing company, really, for Johnny Walker or for
Haig and Haig. A lot of it started from the Scotch whiskey
business as the base of these types of companies like
Schieffelin, Twenty-One Brands, Somerset, Frederick Wildman,
Hicke: Was this before or after they were acquired by Moet?
Wright: This was before. I just felt we simply couldn't afford that
kind of what I thought was an unproductive waste of money on
the kind of margins they took. I did finally; I negotiated
with Schieffelin, and they were willing for certain markets--!
thought because they were a New York-based company, and New
York is a very complex market --it's a very difficult market;
there are very peculiar things to the New York market that
make it rather difficult. I felt because of their position in
New Yorkand in some ways Florida is, funnily enough, kind of
an appendage of New York.
Hicke: Well, they probably have a lot of the same population.
Wright: Yes. We wound up taking New York, New Jersey, Connecticut,
and Florida and putting that into Schieffelin' s hands but as a
sales agent rather than a marketing company, so they adjusted
their commission rate to accommodate that. I think they were
very understanding about that. Of course, about 80 percent of
their profits at that time came from Moet & Hennessy [laughs].
I'm not aware that Moet ever strong-armed them into anything,
but I think they realized that there was a reason to be
Hicke: The difference between being a sales agent and being a
marketing agent means they didn't do much promotion?
Wright: Right, that the marketing budget- -p. r. or whatever advertising
we did, merchandising and all that- -Domaine Chandon funded
rather than just give them x number of dollars and let them do
whatever they wanted. It's kind of a fine line.
Hicke: Whatever they did was directly by your request or under your
Wright: Yes, or they would say, "We need"- -I don't know what it was in
those days, maybe some special merchandising in New York, and
they would give us what they felt they needed. We'd say,
"Okay, we'll fund it." But in my opinion the real advantage
of seeking their help was the quality of their sales force and
their presence in the market, so that worked.
Meanwhile, Stu was pretty busy on the road and
performing, really, a very important role of selecting the
right distributor in a given market, which isn't easy. It was
a bit controversial, because Schieffelin- -and I can understand
their position- -would have liked us to have gone with the same
distributor in every market. We felt that would be a mistake,
because a lot of their distributors looked upon Chandon in
those days as a kind of, "Well, yes, we'll do it as a service,
as a sort of a junior Moet brand." We really felt we needed
to have our own strategy, our own image, our own identity, and
we needed wholesalers to really build the brand for us and not
just look upon it as a fait accompli and an appendage of Moet.
So we did not in every market have the same distributor, and I
think that was healthy at that point.
Hicke: Was Canada the first outside the United States? I know you
took a trip to Japan in '84.
Wright: Yes, we started a little bit of exporting to Canada fairly
early on. I'm trying to think of when the Vancouver Wine
Festival really started; it was probably in the late
seventies. It's still in existence, and every year there is a
big tasting. It raises money for the theater in Vancouver and
has been very successful; I think probably it's a major source
of their funding.
We went up to that and immediately had three or four
potential agents after us, really for the province of British
Columbia. I think we were probably into British Columbia
before 1980, and Alberta came pretty much along with British
Columbia. For the eastern part of Canada, we finally went
with the Moet agent, and eastern Canada has never been very
vigorous for a lot of different reasons. Quebec's got its own
little game it plays, and then Ontario has it's game, so
western Canada is much more open to California wines in
Hicke: You stay out of those games?
Hicke: Was Japan in '84 the next big expansion?
Wright: In terms of exports, yes. I felt then, and I'm rapidly
changing my mind in some respects, that we can't look to
overseas markets to solve any problems that we might have.
We've got to do the right thing in the U.S; the U.S. is
basically our market. I felt that there are a lot of people
in the California wine industry who have unrealistic
expectations about the potential for export of California
wines. If I were a Robert Mondavi or a winery like that--
let's say at the upper end, being on the Hotel Ritz wine list
in Paris or the Plaza Athenee, or in London, Hong Kong, et
cetera- -I'm sure it's a very useful marketing tool for
developing more business in the United States. Because what
you're really looking for is particularly the New Yorker- -or
let's say people from the East Coast; I won't pick on New
Yorkers specifically- -who have a certain prejudice towards
European wines. If they're out there in Paris or London or
Hong Kong seeing a California wine being on a prestigious
European hotel list, that says something about the wine.
Hicke: Good point.
Wright: It's very useful for that sort of thing, but because Moet is
sort of everywhere, even though we're not Moet, it doesn't
make a lot of sense for us to try to pursue something like
that. It's just not the same sort of thing. Being present,
at the upper end of the California wine industry, in some
European markets, particularly in prestigious restaurants and
hotels, has some marketing utility, but it isn't going to move
a lot of cases.
The low-priced end of the business is for the most part
a business- -I'm not saying our quality isn't competitive; it
probably is, and it's probably better in some ways at a
certain price, just thinking in world terms. But there's so
much out there. There's Bulgarian wine, Romanian wine, bulk
French and Italian, et cetera. It's not that evident that
there's any substantial business or that there hasn't been
historically. Also I personally think--! guess self interest
comes in- -that in certain markets, like Japan, we're making a
mistake supporting wide -scale promotion of low-priced
California wines, because Japan is so image driven that it's a
very bad long-term strategy. If we really want a position in
Japan in the future, we should be focusing on our best wines.
However, despite what I've said, I think that assuming
the present levels of the dollar versus other currencies stay
where they are or that the dollar doesn't all of a sudden
become very much higher in value, as it was in '85 and that
era, we are very competitive in high-quality wines. There are
some markets, even in Europe the U.K., Switzerland,
Scandinavia, and Germany maybe; I'd say the markets are
countries that don't produce wines- -where I think there is
some opportunity. Not just to develop the problem is that
people get an order for a truckload, and they think this is
great. Then it gets over into the market, and it never moves,
so that isn't very productive. But I think California wines
do have a better potential in export today than they did five
years ago. From Chandon's point of view, we should be looking
at it and doing more about it.
Hicke: Your original trip to Japan, as 1 read about it, was to
promote Blanc de Noirs with sushi.
Wright: Well, I don't know about that. Maybe that was my hope, but it
doesn't work actually. Blanc de Noirs does go beautifully
with sushi, but the people who most appreciate that are not
Japanese. [laughs] The Japanese are still pretty traditional
in what they think goes with what. Frankly, they're
horrifiedcertainly the older Japanese- -with the idea that
anybody would think of having anything with sushi other than
sake or beer. But it'll change.
Domaine Chandon in Australia
Hicke: Tell me about Domaine Chandon in Australia.
Wright: Going quite a way back, I'd say late seventies and early
eighties, Alain Chevalier, who was then chairman of my parent
company, said something to me about, "You know, John, this is
now doing very well. I've always thought maybe the next
country should be Australia someday. Since you're closer to
Australia, and you speak their language--" [laughs] so to
speak, but better than he did--
Wright: Alain Chevalier was saying that I should put in the back of my
mind that we ought to do something about Australia sometime,
and that was it. Then in '82 Pan American was doing kind of a
fun thing, where winemakers would get a first-class ticket on
Pan Am. All we had to do was pour our wine and discuss it
with the people on the plane. So I had this opportunity to go
to Australia on one of those things; I thought, why not?
I went over in ' 82 and was really very intrigued by what
I saw and by the wines I tasted. I realized that at that
stage the Aussies were drinking a lot of bubbles.
Hicke: Oh, were they?
Wright: Oh, very much more than the Americans in terms of per capita
and also in terms of sparkling wine compared to still wine. I
think sparkling wine in Australia was something like
12 percent of total wine sold, whereas here it's something
like 6 percent. There was no what I would consider to be
quality Australian sparkling wine, even though there were some
very high-quality still wines. There was no logical reason
why really good Australian [sparkling] wines could not be made
out of Pinot noir, Chardonnay, et cetera.
When I got back I did a little modest lobbying but
didn't really get too serious until '84, at which time the
technical people of Moet started asking me a bit more about
Australian wines. I could see that they were interested,
which was a very good sign, because they play a pretty
important role in terms of what top management listens to. So
I organized a trip where the head technical director of Moet
and I and a couple of other people took a trip through
Hicke: Was that Richard Geoff roy?
Wright: No, his name was Philippe Coulon; he's Richard's boss.
Philippe got very intrigued. That was in the fall of '84, and
we had managed by the Australian spring of '85, meaning
February or March, to work a couple of deals out with some
people that I knew, so that we actually had wine made for us
as early as '84, some of which we've used in our original
blends. It was the same sort of situation--! think in
retrospect we should have gotten into Australia in about '82
or '81. Even though we were pretty much the first, I think we
would have gotten a bit more of a leg up. We certainly
weren't too late in any way. It's just that there would have
been a real opportunity if we had started in '81 or '82 to
have developed a really strong brand recognition by now, and
now we're just starting to do it.
Hicke: Why do they drink more sparkling wine, do you think?
Wright: They have less inhibitions. [laughter] Aussies like to have
a good time, and they drink more of everything. They were
never settled by Puritans, which I think does make a
Hicke: Do they consider sparkling wine a little bit more commonly?
Wright: Yes, they're very irreverent, which is very nice. A bottle of
Moet (Mo-ay, as they call it), which is the leading Champagne
now in Australia, they'll drink quite happily at the drop of a
hat. It's not that big a deal. What has happened is that the
prices of Champagne have really gone up in Australia, and
that's put a certain damper on it, which is helping the
Australian products, too. They've got a lot of sparkling wine
they call champers, and they'll use the word whether it's
champagne or cheap stuff; they're really irreverent.
Wright: Yes, they've got wonderful nicknames for all sorts of things.
If you went to the Melbourne Cup Race, which is one of the big
holidays in the state of Victoria- -the state of Victoria
declares a holiday on this horse race, which is the first
Tuesday of every November, and the rest of Australia watches
it on the telly. If you come from the United States and go to
Flemington race course and see the number of bottles of
sparkling wine or champagne lying around the race course at
the end of the day, you would guess that the Australian
champagne consumption was ten times more than it is.
Hicke: Basis for a good marketing decision?
Managing a Winery
Hicke: I'd like to get some information about your management style,
if we. can talk about that a little bit. For instance, I know
you have worked as a waiter in your restaurant.
Wright: Yes, just to kind of find out what goes on. I've never
considered myself a very good manager. Sometimes I think the
word "management 11 to a lot of people means administration,
going through a lot of details, supervising, and all that. I
always believed that most people, if given the opportunity,
are really motivated to do a good job. I don't think you have
to sit around looking over their shoulders, coerce them, or
otherwise motivate them. If the environment's right, I think
most people are motivated. Oh, there are occasionally going
to be a few bad actors here and there.
So I'm a very hands -off kind of person. I think the
best side of me is more in the big picture and partially
creative part of things. It's certainly not in detail or
administration; I'm a terrible administrator, as you can see
as an example this morning, when I thought you were going to
be here later. [laughter] All I had to do was look at my
calendar, but I didn't look at my calendar. Fortunately I
have people working with me who handle administration
Hicke: I think finding good people is certainly an important part of
Wright: I think so, too --or leadership or whatever. I feel that my
role is more a leadership role than it is a manager's role.
It's a matter of semantics. I think it's very important. In
picking people, for me talent and what I call chemistry are
far more important than what they've done in the past. I've
never expected somebody to have 150 million years of
experience before we hire them. Experience you get on the job
As a company starts, I think it's very appropriate to be
very loose about not constricting people and not having too
many rules and too much structure, but being tight about
making sure you're going in the right direction and
understanding what you really want to do. I think as the
company has matured there's probably a need for a bit more
structure, but I guess I think there's less need for structure
here. People ask, "Do you have an organization chart?" No, I
don't have an organization chart. Now, I can draw you one in
about two minutes that is pretty accurate. It's probably
useful to give to somebody on the outside so that they know
who's, who, but it has no meaning within the company. You
know, if somebody has to look at a chart to show who they
report to and this and that- -I don't think it's very useful.
The same thing with job descriptions; I'd rather have a person
come to me and have her or him tell me what they think their
job is, not run over and try to put things in words that
generally don't mean anything anyway.
I guess in that sense I'm a pretty loose, unstructured
kind of person, which bothers some people.
Hicke: It's apparently very successful.
Wright: Yes, but there are people I know who from time to time get a
little frustrated, and I can understand why. Certainly some
rules are necessary, and it's not that we don't have rules.
There could be a few more.
Hicke: I think it's really interesting, considering you started out
hiring the people down the road to work in your vineyards .
Wright: Yes, it is. I think partly it's just because of the origins
of the company. When it's that kind of a beginning there
tends to be more of a family- like atmosphere, which certainly
has its advantages. I think it can be overdone. I think a
company can take advantage of that and ask people as part of
the family to do things that are unreasonable. I don't
suppress the family thing, but I don't like to visibly play it
up too much.
The Debut of Panache
Hicke: Getting back to the wines, let me ask you about Panache. How
did that come about?
Wright: It's not very important; it's just a little wine. There's an
aperitif that they make in Champagne called Ratafia, which is
essentially grape juice and brandy. There's one very similar
that is perhaps more appealing to most people made in the
Cognac district, called pineau de charentes, which funnily
enough has a rather big market in eastern Canada. There
again, it is essentially grape juice and brandy- -in that case
Cognac. With our deuxiSme taille, our second cut of Pinot
noir juice, we really didn't have much of a market for it, so
we thought we'd use that as a base for making an aperitif type
of wine like Ratafia. Having made that, fooling around with
names, eventually Michaela Rodeno's husband, Greg Rodeno, came
up withhe was thinking of Pinot, sort of, and then Panache.
Panache, of course, is a panoply of whatever, so that's how
the name got invented for the product. It's a little fun
thing we do on the side, but it's not a big part of our
Hicke: You seem to have a lot of fun.
Wright: Well, I try to.
Buying the Shadow Creek Winery
Hicke: Let me ask you about Shadow Creek, which I believe you just
bought in '88.
Wright: Shadow Creek as a brand I believe was pretty much started by a
man named George Vare . George has now just become the
president of a very good wine distributor in California on the
Central Coast. George had been in the wine business and was
interested in sparkling wine and kind of bootlegged this
product. It's been made in a few different places. In our
comparative tastings, Shadow Creek always showed up very well
in a style we liked, somewhat different from Chandon but
nevertheless a style that we liked.
I forget the whole story, but George finally sold Shadow
Creek because he wanted to do other things, and it wound up at
Corbett Canyon, down in the San Luis Obispo area. I'd always
had a high regard for the former winemaker at Korbel, Jim
Hunsinger, who is now with Sutter Home. He is one of the
better, experienced, and more talented sparkling winemakers in
California. I always kept in touch with Jim, so I knew he had
gone to Corbett Canyon to make Shadow Creek.
Corbett Canyon got sold to The Wine Group, or the people
who make Franzia and Tribuno. Art Ciocca is the head of it.
Art called me one day and said he'd been looking at overall
strategic direction. He didn't feel that Shadow Creek really
fit into Corbett Canyon and into what they were doing, and
would we be interested in buying the inventory that was there
and the brand? At that stage --this was in '88 --we were
concerned about eventually running out of grapes from Napa and
Carneros for Chandon and did not want to use grapes from other
parts of California for Chandon because we feel it would
change the character and style of the wine. So we felt Shadow
Creek could be a brand where we could use our expertise and
background and utilize some of the grape resources that we
knew existed in the Central Coast, down around San Luis
Obispo, and up in Mendocino, which are very good grapes but
something we wouldn't want to risk putting into Chandon.
That was our underlying reason for purchasing the line.
Now things have changed a little bit, but there's still a very
real role for Shadow Creek. 1 think the potential shortage
for grapes is less of a concern right now because the market
is soft, at least for the moment. On the other hand, because
of where the grapes come from and also the fact that our fixed
costs are already here, we can take Shadow Creek and put it
into a niche which is lower than Chandon' s and have some
success with that particular price niche --very high quality,
but at a somewhat more generous price .
Hicke: Is the wine made here?
Wright: Yes, it's made here.
Hicke: Was there a winery that you bought with it?
Wright: No. In fact, that was one of the advantages; we didn't want
to buy a winery. It was being made at Corbett Canyon, and one
of his reasons for selling it was that he had to make some
production decisions himself about space. To continue to make
Shadow Creek was going to be a problem. That was ideal for
us, because we don't really need another winery. But we could
take something like Shadow Creek- -not that the grapes are a
great deal cheaper, but they are a bit cheaper. Also, shortly
after we bought Shadow Creek we bought some vineyard acreage
up in Mendocino for a very attractive price, so our cost for
growing grapes up there is very attractive. It's Pinot noir
and Chardonnay, excellent quality.
Our cost base at Shadow Creek, depending on how you play
those games, is less, which permits us to come out with a
different price level for Shadow Creek without damaging the
image of Chandon or the image of Shadow Creek.
Hicke: That was kind of an unusual way to buy a wine label, to have
them call up and offer to sell it to you.
Wright: [laughs] Well, yes, I guess so. I think probably Art trusted
me, and I trust him. He wasn't trying to pull a fast one on
Hicke: Had you thought about expanding in that direction at all?
Wright: No, not specifically, but I certainly was thinking about grape
Hicke : So it came at a good time .
Hicke: I want to ask you about the testing of Pinot noir grapes in
the Carneros area. Are you involved in some of the tests that
[University of California] Davis is doing down there, or are
you testing in your own vineyards on clones?
Wright: We do a lot of trials all over, but particularly at Carneros
on clones, but also on trellis. Some of the stuff that Davis
and other people are working on we are participating in and
doing some of our own things. And not just with Pinot noir.
I think where some of the real breakthroughs are going to come
from in the future are more in viticulture than in enology.
As we learn more about grapes and the relationship between
quality and practices in the vineyard, there are some really
interesting things happening.
There's been a very dramatic change in what was once the
accepted planting spacing, et cetera, for grapes in
California. I think the initial attitude of, say, Davis in
those days --and others; it wasn't just Davis --was to look at
spacing more on the basis of what is the maximum spacing you
can have and still get a decent yield. I'd say in those times
nobody was doing any work on trying to relate any of that to
quality. Quality was established more or less by climate and
grape variety; that was pretty much the standard thinking,
which is not incorrect but not totally correct. It's more
complicated than that.
-In recent years, probably starting more from New
Zealandbecause they had severe problems with overly vigorous
vines and therefore sort of herbal, vegetative
characteristics, they started doing a lot of trials of
reducing vigor in the vineyard by closer spacing, different
types of training, and all that. Shortly thereafter in
California it became more and more evident that this idea of
just letting these vines grow with maximum leaf cover isn't
particularly good either for quality or for consistent yield.
So a lot has been going on; canopy management is probably the
We do find on our trials with vineyards that we've
planted more recently that managing canopies better does
produce both better yields and also better quality. A lot is
going to happen, I think, in that area.
I have read and heard that Pinot Noir is a difficult varietal
to make, but I don't know if it's because there are so many
clones of the grape or--
I think as a red wine it's very difficult.
That's what I meant,
I didn't know if it applied to the
On the contrary, as a base wine for sparkling wine, it's a
very easy, very forgiving grape, actually, much more so than
Chardonnay. I think it's partly because people have in their
minds, rightly or wrongly--! think it's wrongly- -that if
you've got a red wine that's made from Pinot noir, it ought to
taste exactly like a burgundy. Nothing tastes exactly like
that, you know. The flavors of Pinot noir are so subtle.
Cabernet has a very strong flavor, a lot of Zinfandel has a
pretty strong flavor, Merlot, Sangiovese, et cetera. Pinot
noir has a very elusive, almost vinous character, and it
doesn't have a strong flavor. Therefore, I think it's much
more specificboth clones and soil and climate.
Many, many lovers of wine would probably say the best
bottle of wine they ever had in their life, if they had one,
was a really great burgundy. You know, if it's a really great
burgundy, it's a very memorable wine. A lot of us , I'm sure,
have a challenge of attempting to duplicate that, and it's
very, very difficult but very challenging to work with that.
I think Carneros is an area for red Pinot noir that gives a
very delightful character, but I'm not sure it's a substitute
for burgundy, and I'm not sure that's what people should be
trying to do.
In any case, that's not applicable to sparkling winemaking.
No, not at all.
That's basically what I wanted to know.
Classic Methods/Classic Varieties Society
Hicke: Before I forget, I want to ask you about the CMCV [Classic
Methods/Classic Varieties] Society. How was it organized, and
what are you doing?
Wright: I believe that wine consumers buy wine in part by brand, but
not to the same extent that they would buy soap suds or other
things . One of the beauties of wine is that it does have so
many ramifications of color, flavor, taste, smells, and all
this, that even though you might love Clos du Val's Cabernet,
you're not going to drink that every time you have a bottle of
wine. In fact, you're not even going to drink Cabernet
Sauvignon every time you have a bottle of wine. Sparkling
wines and champagnes are more brand oriented. People tend to
be less risk taking when it comes to champagne and sparkling
wine, so there's a bit more brand loyalty there. Chandon's
been very successful because of that, but I think we've gotten
to the point where we have to recognize the other part of
people's wine selection motivation, and that's what I call
Wright: For example, Sonoma-Cutrer [Vineyards], which is virtually
exclusively into Chardonnay- - 1 think that's all they make;
they may make different types or areas of Chardonnay- -has been
a very successful brand, in a sense, and pretty well
recognized. It gets very good distribution in restaurants and
is pretty well recognized by that type of consumer who is
going to buy that priced wine. Let's assume they've been
overwhelmingly successful. The probability is that if they
produced a Riesling from Monterey it would be a crashing
failure, because that isn't a category that's doing anything
in the market. So categories are at least as important if not
more important than brands, and one has to recognize that.
I felt that as successful as Chandon has been, with all
these new people coming into the market we could take an
attitude of, "Let's battle it out, "--and we will do that; it's
competitive, very competitive- -but the best thing to do is to
try and make the market grow. I think the best way of making
the market grow is to try to get our story as a category
across to the trade, the press, and the consumers. Because we
haven't gotten the story across as a category that we- -meaning
the producers of sparkling wine- -are using the classic
varieties. Over the years, I think the press, the trade, and
the consumers that count have come to recognize California
Cabernet and California Chardonnay wines as world-class wines,
and they haven't really recognized the sparkling wines.
Partly it's because there's been this image of Champagne, and
then there's everything else.
Well, when you get to everything else, there are in fact
some categories that have a distinctiveness that Champagne
has, and we're one of them, I think. Those sparkling wines
made in the coastal areas of California by wineries that are
using Pinot noir and Chardonnay, aging the right length of
time, and processing the grapes properly- -particularly
pressing them properly- -are making world-class sparkling
wines. I'd say there's no other place in the world except
Champagne that is consistently making sparkling wines of the
quality that we are making. But unfortunately, I don't think
the press, the media, or the trade, much less the consumer,
really recognize that. That's the reason for founding the
Did you come up with the original idea?
Then you contacted other wineries?
I know that you are president now.
Well, that doesn't mean anything. [laughs] I figured that in
order to really do this, we needed a competent staff.
As the CMCV society was getting under way and we were
out looking for an executive director, I had a couple of
prospects out there. Bob Finnigan just happened to call me on
the phone and said that for a number of reasons he was looking
to get away from the journalism point of view and more
involved in the business parts of the wine business. His
background, even though he's known as a wine journalisthe
went to Harvard business school, and he was in the business
consulting field for quite a while, so he's got a business
I said, "Well, that's kind of interesting," and I
explained what we were doing. He said, "Let me think about
that," and then he came back with a great deal of enthusiasm;
he really felt that was something he wanted to do, so we got
that under way.
Hicke: What are the methods you're going to use?
Wright: A lot of them are going to be press releases and that kind of
stuff. We have done already tastings, but much more
controlled, not just out there pouring wine all over the
place. We've developed some concepts about flavor profiles.
In the fall of last year we invited the press- -key retailers,
and restauranteurs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San
Francisco- -and we sat down and tasted. First of all, we
explained some of the chemistry of champagne, CMCV wines, and
then we selected cavas from Spain. The reason for that is
that cava, which is Spanish m&thode champenoLse sparkling
wine, does have kind of a set of rules. They do use
particular grapes, and therefore one would expect them to have
a particular style. Style is a bad word, because we like to
use style when we're talking about differences among, let's
say, ourselves or among styles of Moet versus Pommery and Paul
Roget, et cetera. So I think it's more "flavor profile"
I think one of the advantages of French Champagne to a
consumer is that unless you are unlucky enough to get a bad
bottle, which can always happen- -particularly if you are
outside of France and are not dealing with Champagnes that are
made by co-ops and small producers but are dealing with the
great brands of Champagne, there is going to be an underlying
flavor profile no matter what the brand is.
Hicke: A consistent--?
Wright: A consistent flavor profile that is very identified with
Champagne, and it's probably more true than for any other
world-class wine, because they get their grapes all from the
same place, and they're all blends. There are stylistic
differences, there's no doubt about it, but there is an
underlying flavor profile.
Our winemakers from the various members started tasting
Champagne, CMCV wines, and cavas with the aroma flavor wheel
type of thing. We simplified that into fewer characteristics
that we can plot on a graph, and we do come out with very
distinctive different profiles as shown graphically. It so
happens that the CMCV profile is probably closer to the
Champagne profile than the cava profile, but we're not trying
to make quality judgments by any of these; we're just saying
this is what they're like. The beauty of all three of them,
actually, is that as a consumer, if you buy a cava or a CMCV
wine or a Champagne, chances are you are going to get a
profile- -a flavor profile, I call it- -that's fairly
predictable. Whereas for a lot of things with bubbles in the
world, you don't know what the hell they're going to taste
We spent last fall getting that point across to people
in various markets with, I would say, a considerable degree of
success in terms of their recognition that, "Gee, these things
really do exist." There are some misconceptions, like some
people think Champagne is dryer, and it isn't. In fact, CMCV
wines are a bit dryer. That's not to say it's either good or
bad; that's just to say that our wines balance better that
We're carrying that forward, so we're doing that. We
think wine judges need a lot of guidance when it comes to
sparkling wine, because they've not been brought up on
sparkling wine and are looking for the wrong things very often
when they're judging sparkling wines. We hope to have a
seminar in San Francisco- -we' re organizing that nowpurely
for wine judges who are going to judge at the San Francisco
Wine Fair. That's a very prestigious group with good palates.
We're not complaining about their palates, but we do think
they could use some background on what constitutes quality
characteristics in sparkling wine and why it is different. So
we're going to do some really fun things like taste a
sparkling wine where we've debubbled it, against when it has
bubbles, to show what happens with bubbles.
We can do that better as the CMCV, I think, than we can
individually, because if we bring wine writers and judges into
Chandon--and of course they come here all the time- -I think
they always have an underlying feeling that we've got our own
axe to grind. Not that they don't treat us seriously, but I
think there's an underlying thinking, "What point are they
trying to get across?" Whereas as a group I think we're more
The beauty of this particular group is that there is
very little disagreement about what constitutes quality and
what you do to make a quality sparkling wine. If you put
together a group of Cabernet producers, I think there would be
a lot of difference of opinion. [laughs] So in that sense
it's fairly easy to do.
Hicke: Do you plan to identify with the CMCV?
Wright: Yes. We've got a logo, and we're going to put it on our foil.
It's going to take some time. You know, Champagne people have
been at it for a couple hundred years, so we've got to have
some patience here. But I think it's got to be done.
Difference in Perspective of Large and Small Wineries
Hicke: Let me ask you about the Wine Institute and the split between
the small and large wineries. Were you involved in that?
Wright: No, only in a peripheral way. I think it's really tragic.
It's a really serious thing that's occurring, and it seems to
be getting worse, too --this apparent split between small and
large. Then there's the whole question of what is small and
what is large. Some of these people who present themselves as
family winemakers are not small wineries at all. I think the
Wine Institute in the past has attempted to do things for
which it is not terribly skilled in terms of its background,
particularly in some of the public relations areas, et cetera.
On the other hand, I don't think there's a substitute for the
Wine Institute as a spokesperson for California wines in
general and certainly in terms of governmental regulations,
trade relations, and all this. There's just no substitute for
the skills that John De Luca has and the staff and what
they've done over the years.
I think they might not all be small winemakers, but
they're small-minded people. By nit-picking away at certain
things, all they're succeeding in doing is creating a disarray
at a time when we just don't need that. The first thing that
came in when I was on the Wine Commission, was the small
winemakers said, "We're paying more for dues than the big
people are." Sure, they're paying more because their grapes
cost more. We do, too, actually. But what they pay as a
percentage of the value of their product is very much less
than what Gallo is paying or The Wine Group and so forth,
that didn't satisfy them, no, no, no, so all sorts of
concessions were made to them.
It isn't as if all the small winemakers are united; it's
just a few in there and most of them aren't small
winemakers- -who just have some beef. Basically what they're
trying to get is some sort of a preferential advantage , and
they're playing this up. Apparently, as of today they're in
Sacramento trying to get the sparkling wine tax in California
raised from thirty cents to forty cents, but with small
sparkling wine producers being exempt from this. To what end?
Very definitely it's to keep their taxes down, because they
don't make sparkling wine.
Hicke: They see that the tax is going to be raised somewhere, so--
Wright: Right. Traditionally we have paid thirty cents a gallon in
California versus one cent a gallon for table wine.
Hicke: Yes, why is that? Why is sparkling wine taxed so much more?
Wright: Because at one time it was considered a luxury product and had
a luxury tax on it.
That isn't really very helpful on their part, and
they're playing this role, "We're small, old, humble, country,
family winemakers." As somebody said to me on Friday at a
symposium in San Francisco, "You mean limited partners are
part of the family?" In most cases, it's just that they're
not structured as a corporation, but they certainly don't act
like and aren't run just by a little, old family by any means.
Plus, there are some family -owned companies in this business
that are very, very large- -Gallo , Sutter Home, Robert Mondavi;
by no means is the wine business dominated by corporations.
It isn't a matter of corporate versus family owned. I
don't really know what it is, other than the fact that there
are a few people out there, some of whom genuinely feel they
are small, and therefore their interests aren't being properly
represented. If that's true, they don't have much of a beef,
when you really look at who pays what dues and who gets what
sorts of services. I think another part is very politically
oriented types of people who are just trying to get something
for nothing, and that really annoys me.
Hicke: So there isn't any great dividing line, but maybe some special
interests that feel they are unhappy?
Wright: Yes. It's almost a case -by-case basis. Barry Sterling of
Iron Horse, for example, saw me on Friday. He said, "Gee, do
you know any of the political people in Napa?" I said, "Sort
of. I know Mike Thompson." He said, "Would you please get to
him? This is really ridiculous, what's going on. I , of
course, qualify under this because I only make so many gallons
a year, but this is absolutely crazy. It's tearing the
industry apart." And there are a lot of small wineries like
Barry's that are in total agreement with that, but there are a
few people, and they're not all small --
Hicke: Didn't Hiram Walker [Distillers] leave the Wine Institute?
Wright: I think so. Yes, they did. So they'll get something for
nothing. They'll get all the benefits, and they won't pay
their dues. I don't really know what the outcome of that is.
Hicke: There's probably no good answer, either.
Wright: Clearly the best was when we had the Wine Commission, because
that was mandatory, so everybody did it. That was
unfortunately killed by this same group of people.
Gazing Into the Crystal Ball
Hicke: Let me just ask as a wrap-up question how you see the future
for sparkling wine and for Domaine Chandon.
Wright: Looking at my crystal ball, the particular climate out there
right now is not dismal, but it's not great. Unquestionably
there is, to the entire wine business, a challenge and a
threat from anti-alcohol forces. I happen to believe that
it's not really a conspiracy. I'm sure there are some real
dyed-in-the-wool Prohibitionists out there, but I don't think
that's a big deal. I think the biggest challenge and threat
we have is people feeling, believing, that the consumption of
wine says something bad about you: if you're seen drinking a
glass of wine at lunch, there must be something wrong with
you; it's not appropriate, proper corporate behavior. I see
that as the most serious threat.
Along with that I think there is a very legitimate
concern about health, longevity, and lifestyles. The thing
about wine is that it, as a beverage in the beverage alcohol
spectrum, is probably more benign or less likely to be abused,
for different reasons, than either beer or spirits. Beer
tends to be abused because it's a young people's kind of
thing, and they tend to be abusers of everything because
they're young and figure they're going to live forever. I
remember that the Black Jewish mayor of Charleston, South
Carolina- -quite a fascinating guy- -said we could solve the
crime problem in this country by eliminating everybody from
the ages of twenty to twenty -eight. [laughter] Once they get
to be thirty-five, they're not criminals anymore. And spirits
are something else again.
That's the good news. The bad news is that wine
consumers are much better educated, by and large, and are at
the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum for the most
part. They're the ones who do recognize that lifestyle and
how you live your life are going to affect both the quality of
your life and the longevity of your life. They are more
likely to be swayed by media and things like this than
somebody in a lower socio-economic level who tends to not tune
in on some of this. So even though we're, say, the beverage
that's least abused, our consumers are more likely to be
swayed by the fashion of the time, so to speak. Now, that has
a way of coming back, too. I do think that over the longer
term people who drink our products will recognize that
abstinence of the product doesn't insure --in fact, it might
even be less healthy to abstain altogether than it is to enjoy
That's certainly a challenge. I think the actual
numbers that have affected us, specifically in the sparkling
wine business, have been more the significant intake of
champagne and sparkling wine, specifically at New Year's. I
think that's more a "driving under the influence" influence on
people. If they stay home, they figure, "Why pay for a bottle
of champagne?" I think we could counteract that negative
influence over time by more and more recognition that
"champagne" is a wine that doesn't require a big-deal
celebration; it's got its own flavor profile. It's a really
nice wine to have with food, particularly lighter cuisine.
It's always going to be a little bit of a big deal, which is
I think the present downturn, which there definitely is
at all levels of the sparkling wine business, is not
necessarily a permanent, ever-declining type of problem.
Right now the economy isn't helping, and the attitude--! don't
think it's going to last forever, because I don't think it's
inherent in the human psyche, but there's just a big guilt
trip on a lot of people. You're not supposed to have any fun
anymore; you're not supposed to be seen having any fun.
Really! That isn't a hundred percent, but it's pretty
pervasive in a lot of places.
Actually, I think the future is pretty bright, but I
don't know when it's going to get here. [laughter] It's more
a matter of timing. It's difficult for us and for all of the
people who make wine with any sort of aging profile, because
we've got to look three years, four years down the road.
Right now the present situation would say we ought to pull
back on grapes, pull back on production, and get our inventory
down. And we're doing a bit of that. My only concern is that
by the time that happens, things will turn around, and then we
won't have enough. [laughs]
You really do need a crystal ball.
Seeing the whole thing is impossible, so it's pretty useless
to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the future is
going to be like. Peter Drucker, who I think as a writer is
still one of the great philosophers of management, always
said, "You can't predict the future. All you can do is make
decisions today so that you'll have a future." You've really
got to look at that and not spend too much time trying to
forecast things that are not predictable.
Maybe that's a good note to end on, and I'll let you go back
to making your decisions.
Whatever they may be .
Thank you very much for a fascinating and informative
interview on Domaine Chandon and the sparkling wine industry.
John Wright being interviewed for oral history, 1991
Photograph by Carole Hicke
INTERVIEW WITH EDMOND MAUDIERE
[Date of Interview: September 11, 1991 ]##
Hicke: Can you tell me when and where you were born?
Maudiere: I was born in a small town in the Champagne region of France
called Ay. It's a very short name. I was born in that small
village after ten generations on my mother's side, and the next
village, which is called Mareuil sur Ay, was the home of my
father's family for eleven generations before me.
Hicke: That's wonderful!
Maudiere: There is an exception. One of my great grandfathers brought a
fiancee from Vienna, and this is the only foreign intrusion in
Hicke: And you grew up right around there?
Maudiere: I grew up in Ay until I was nine years old. Then I went to
Epernay, which is less than a mile from Ay. I went to secondary
school there, and then my family moved to Rheims, where I
studied at the university. Then at Dijon and Beaune I studied
viticulture and enology, and microbiology in Paris.
Hicke: Then where did you go?
Maudiere: My first job was in Epernay at a Champagne house whose name was
Mercier. Mercier merged with Moet & Chandon, and I became one
of the Champagne makers of Moet & Chandon.
Hicke: What were you doing for Moet & Chandon?
Maudiere: I've been the enologist, taking care of the winemaking at Moet &
Chandon. I was lucky to come to California when our president
had the idea of creating a second winery out of Epernay. The
first one had been created in Argentina something like fifteen
or twenty years before [the one in] California. That was the
first experience we had in a foreign country, and then we
created Domaine Chandon here in '73. Since then we have been
Hicke: What did you think of the idea when you first heard about it?
Maudiere: I thought it was a very good idea. When we went to Argentina it
was for different reasons. We went there because in Argentina,
Champagne had 1,200 percent tax, so nobody was able to buy a
bottle of Champagne in Argentina. Here in California we came
for a different purpose. Champagne is a very small district
(83,00 acres), and the appellation controlee [highest rank in
categories of French wine] does not give to the Champagne houses
or to the growers [the right to acquire] more than a few
hectares every year, so we can't expand. So we decided to
expand outside of Champagne. I think there are customers
everywhere in the world for sparkling wine and Champagne, and we
wanted to export our knowledge in Champagne making. That's why
I was sent here to create, generate, Domaine Chandon.
II DOMAINE CHANDON
Hicke: What was your specific responsibility when you came?
Maudiere: My responsibility was, first of all, finding the right grapes.
I have to say that I never tried to imitate what we were making
in Champagne; I wanted to make the best sparkling wine here. I
wasn't sure that the best grapes were the same ones that we used
in our country.
Hicke : Would that be a difference of terroir?
Maudiere: Everything is different. First, the position- -south, on the
parallel [latitude] that goes to southern Madrid in Spain, so
it's much warmer; it seemed to be much warmer, but in fact it is
not. I will explain to you why. There is more light here, and
the soil is not the same. We have here microclimates, but they
are different from the ones in Champagne. The rainfall here is
not the same; it's the same amount, but it doesn't fall for
seven or eight months like it does in Champagne. Here it falls
between November and March, so it's concentrated in a few
months. And the humidity is not the same. We have greater
humidity at night than in Champagne, but during the day it's
very dry. So it's not the same balance.
The outside temperature is mostly the same; if you add the
nighttime temperatures and the daytime temperatures, the average
is the same. It's funny, but it's not distributed the same way.
In Champagne, for example, we have temperatures just now- -I
called yesterday- -of around ninety degrees during the day.
Normally it doesn't cool off at night; it stays around eighty-
five. But here, when we have the same daytime temperature, we
have much cooler nights than in Champagne.
Hicke: The fog?
Maudiere: The fog, the humiditywhich helps; it allows the vines to live
in great shape. When you see the color of the leaves, you know.
We don't even need irrigation; people here in Yountville have
beautiful vineyards, and many of them are not irrigated. Vines
are the strongest plants in the world, so they find moisture
deep in the ground if they need it. In Algeria, I have seen
vine roots thirty meters long that's roughly a hundred feet
long- -for finding some moisture, even a drop. The tendency here
has been to irrigate to get bigger crops, but we could avoid it.
Hicke: We may have to in the future [referring to present five-year
dought in California] .
Maudiere: Yes. We don't need those big crops; we need good crops. With
any fruit, like pears or apples or any others, you have the
[given] potential for a crop. The quality of the fruit divides
the basic potential. So if you have a big crop, the fruits are
less fruity, have less sugar, less of any element. If you have
less fruit, they are better. The vines are the same as any
fruit tree; so when you irrigate to produce bigger crops, they
are not as good as they would be if they were smaller.
Hicke: How did you decide what grapes to plant?
Maudiere: I tested lots of still wines on the market, and I found that
Chardonnay was very good and Pinot Noir was also very good.
There was some Pinot blanc [grown] here in the valley, just a
few acres. We had Pinot blanc Champagne fifty or sixty years
ago, and it disappeared because it is a vine very sensitive to
frost, and it doesn't live well in very cold climates. I was
very happy to rediscover the Pinot blanc.
In the beginning in my experiments I used Pinot noir,
Chardonnay, and Pinot blanc. It gave us the real base for the
future of Domaine Chandon.
Hicke: Where did you find the Pinot blanc?
Maudiere: In the valley. There was a small vineyard called Lyncrest,
above St. Helena on the west side. There were two or three
acres, maximum four acres, of Pinot blanc, and that's where we
got our wood. When we grafted the first vines, we grafted Pinot
blanc from Lyncrest. We grafted something like two hundred
acres of Pinot blanc, because we were able to [easily] find
Chardonnay and Pinot noir, and I wanted to have the Pinot blanc.
Hicke: Is that similar to the Ugni blanc or the Folle blanche?
Maudiere: No. It's not the same family, but it's close to the Chardonnay.
But it has a different taste.
Hicke: What does it add?
Maudiere: It has what I call a middle body. It's a very protein-rich
wine, and we need all the forms of colloids in a sparkling wine.
First of all, the yeast in the second fermentation need
proteins. It's the support of the bubbles, too. It gives what
we call superficial tension to the wine. It keeps the beautiful
crown of foam. If you destroy the proteins by wrong
vinif ication, you don't have bubbles and you do not have that
crown of white foam on the glass.
Hicke: It sounds like a matter of chemistry or microbiology.
Maudiere: Yes, it's microbiology. More than any other wine where you have
second fermentation, you have to be very precise and use natural
yeast that has been selected and grown and acclimated to the
wine, to the pressure and to the temperature.
Hicke: What kind of yeast do you use?
Maudiere: We use Oviformis bayanus for different reasons. Bayanus is a
yeast which supports high pressure, cool temperatures, and is
very clean. I mean, the yeast doesn't have to give any taste,
People are confused; most of the time they think that yeast
brings a taste or an aroma to the wine. That's wrong.
Hicke: They think of it as being like yeast in bread?
Maudiere: Yes, but that's wrong. If yeast brings any taste or strong
aroma, it's the wrong yeast. You have to taste wine and nothing
else. That's what bayanus brings- -clean fermentation, and it's
a big yeast. It's twice as big as our regular Oviformis. When
you have to have a second fermentation in the bottle, it's
heavy, and for riddling the bottle, it slides faster than any
other one .
Hicke : Another advantage .
Building the Winery
Hicke: [walking out the door of the new offices and heading for the
winery] Did you have anything to do with the building of the
Maudiere: Yes. My mother's father was an architect, and my mother wanted
me to be an architect. For three years I went to the [Ecole
des] Beaux Arts and studied architecture, but only for a few
hours a day during my secondary school, from five to eight p.m.
every day. I like architecture, and I like to design and make
drawings. The architects who were in charge of conceiving the
building [used] a couple of my ideas, such as the idea of a Y
Hicke: Why was that?
Maudiere: Because you can expand any branch of the Y. One branch can be
the tank room, a cellar; another can be the riddling area, the
platform, and above you have the disgorging lines; and the
warehouse. As you get bigger and bigger, just expand any
branch. In the middle of the three branches, you put the
offices and lab. But the environmentalists didn't like the
idea. They wanted us to be lower than the hill which is behind
the building, so the Y became a round shape. Two branches were
bent, making a long curve, and the office was one branch of the
Y. That's essentially the shape of the building.
One thing was very surprising for me: we got all the
stones from the ground here. One man, a hippie, with a horse
extracted all the stones you see in the walls.
Hicke: From your own land here?
Edmond Maudiere in the fifty -four
kilometers of tunnels that store Champagne
under the town of Epernay, Champagne,
Maudiere: Yes, from our own land. The thing that surprised me was the
fact that we built the walls flat on the ground. You put a
layer of sand on the ground, build the stone wall flat on the
sand, then iron bars, and then you put on concrete. After four
weeks, when it's solid, you take a crane and lift the walls.
Suddenly, in one day, all the walls were up. Starting from the
flat land, suddenly the appearance of a building in one day.
Due to the risk of earthquakes, we couldn't have those beautiful
stone walls [put up vertically before the concrete was poured]
in case of an earthquake happening during the four weeks before
the concrete was solid. So we thought of the idea of pouring
the concrete on the back of the stones [while they were lying on
the ground] .
Hicke: You probably don't have to worry about earthquakes in Champagne.
Maudiere: No, not at all. .
Hicke: Are there other wineries that you have seen that were designed
in this Y shape?
Hicke: This was your own idea?
Maudiere: It was my idea. The arches are made in the shape of our cellars
in Epernay. They are the same five meters by five meters- -about
fifteen feet by fifteen feet- -as the cellars of Epernay.
Hicke: They are so beautiful, as well as having a historical reference.
Maudiere: I'm especially happy with the wood.
Hicke: What kind of wood is this?
Maudiere: I think it's pine.
When we founded Domaine Chandon, there was no local
history, so we decided to bring a few artifacts from Champagne
to connect Domaine Chandon and Moet & Chandon. We brought this
tunnels under Epernay are enormous. Moet & Chandon alone owns
some 54 kilometers of cellars storing 114 million bottles of Champagne.
Fortunately, there are no earthquakes.
old press, which is more than 250 years old. [Points to old
press in courtyard. ]
Hicke: It's really beautiful. What kind of wood is that?
Maudiere: It's oak. It's the ancestor of the presses we use today. When
I found it, the vintner behind it was still pressing the grapes
on it. That was approximately twenty- five years ago. He didn't
want to sell it. He said, "No, I'm using it." So I found a
used, modern press, and he was so happy. He said, "Oh, good, a
modern press," so I got it just by exchanging it for a used
Hicke: It adds so much interest and beauty to the courtyard.
Maudiere: There are other artifacts that make a kind of museum that I
brought from our museum in Epernay.
Hicke: That's nice, because it establishes the ties between Champagne
Maudiere: That's right.
In the Winery
Hicke: [inside the winery] My first question is why the tanks are
Maudiere: It's an interesting one. We've done experiments on horizontal
and vertical tanks. In blind tastings we always pick the
horizontal tanks. There is a scientific explanation for that.
We always use the same diameter, roughly a ten- foot diameter.
You can have a tank of fifty thousand liters or a hundred
thousand liters or a hundred fifty thousand liters, and you
always have the same diameter, which means they always come out
at the same temperature. When you have a vertical tank, the
calories are added [toward the top], and with the same
capacityfor example, a hundred thousand liter tank would be
forty feet high, so you need more refrigeration for the same
capacity in a vertical tank than in a horizontal tank.
Hicke: Because it gets warmer the higher it is?
Maudiere: Yes. Which means that the fermentation is not as consistent as
in a horizontal tank.
Hicke: So these help maintain the consistency?
Maudiere: The consistency, the regularity of fermentation. How can I
explain it? Fermentation starts at the bottom, where most of
the yeast we inoculate settles for a short while. Then the
fermentation rises vertically, and convection- -[ indicates with
his hands that fermentation rises and circles outward and
Hicke: They spread out at the top and go around?
Maudiere: Automatically, constantly. They don't stop blending, so it's
Hicke: That doesn't happen if the tank is vertical?
Maudiere: If the tank is vertical, the convection takes place only in the
upper part. I have been inspired by the breweries. They always
use horizontal tanks, and they have a very precise fermentation.
Hicke: You can actually taste the difference?
Maudiere: Oh, yes.
Hicke: I never thought about the breweries using horizontal tanks.
Maudiere: That's why vertical tanks are used for quick fermentation.
Hicke: Is this the only place where horizontal tanks are used?
Maudiere: No, I used horizontal tanks at Mercier. That's where I did all
the research on horizontal tanks. I don't know about any other
Hicke: How about the winery in Australia?
Maudiere: No, because it's very small. We have a few vertical tanks, but
it's a small winery compared to here. In Australia there are
only about fourteen and a half million people, so the market is
very small. There are just two big cities, and that's
[walking through the winery] It always smells so good in here.
Maudiere: The fermentation started a few days ago, and it smells
wonderful. I've been through fermentation in Argentina, Brazil,
and Australia, but [here] this is the right time of the year.
When you are south of the equator and harvest in February or
March, it's like being in another world. It's not the same.
Here it's close to fall, and the smell is wonderful, especially
Hicke: Why this year?
Maudiere: It's probably due to the long ripening.
Hicke: You were just talking about the cleanness and the delicacy.
Maudiere: Yes, the cleanness and the delicacy of the aroma during
fermentation. I don't say it's like Champagne, but it's the
kind of weather we normally have in Champagne- -long ripening,
much longer than here. [This year] it's not the same, but it's
We're right in the middle of the Pinot noir and the
Chardonnay [grapes]. We received today Chardonnay [looking at
chalk board] .
Hicke: You buy grapes?
Maudiere: Yes, we buy grapes. I was talking to [John] Trefethen, and he
was the first one to sell grapes to us for several years. Our
vine grapes were just planted, and they didn't produce grapes
for four years. So we bought grapes starting in '73- -good
ones- -and the first one to sell us grapes was Trefethen. We
still have contracts with him.
There is a reason for having growers. I always compare
making sparkling wine or champagne with painting. You can paint
with the four basic colors, you can blend them and mix them to
make the colors you have in your mind. Making champagne is the
same. -You can have four vineyards- -because we use four
varieties- -or three vineyards, and blend them, but it is very
difficult. You can blend them, but still you don't get
precisely what you are expecting. If you have ten vineyards it
makes things easier, and if you have twenty it's even easier.
The wine is very complex, and the complexity is an addition to
When you have, like we do, four main vineyards- -Yountville ,
Carneros, Mt. Veeder, and Dos Rios--we could produce the bottles
that we produce, but it would take eight or ten weeks of
blending. But having additional growers who are not located in
the same regionsame spot, same entity, same soil gives us all
the complexity we need, so when we blend it's easier.
Do you know the characteristics of each different grape so that
you know what you want?
Hicke: You say, "I need some more from Trefethen," or, "I need some
more from Mt . Veeder"?
Maudiere: Yes. Here [looking at chart] we have a list of the shipments
from other vineyards today [showing grapes] for Domaine Chandon.
[reads list] Carneros, planted in '89; Carneros, planted in
1983; and Mt. Veeder, which was planted in '84. But we don't
call it '84; the number you see on the list is the number of the
piece [of land]. At Carneros we have several big pieces, and
they are listed by the dates when they were planted- -' 89 , '83.
At Mt. Veeder it's older vineyard. So that's what we have today
[in grape shipments].
Hicke: I see. It's all up there on the chart.
Maudiere: When we started we had no winery. It was something like
experiments in a garage --John Wright's garage on Mt. Veeder
[referring to new businesses such as in electronics that started
"in someone's garage"]. John Wright had a piece of vineyard
himself. There was free land surrounding the place where he
had his vineyard, so the first piece of land we bought was on
Mt. Veeder. I started my experimentations in a garage. There
were a few bottles and several blends. It was an office, a
cellar, the lab.
Then when we had the contracts with Trefethen we had a
beautiful old winery which hadn't been used since Prohibition.
We had. an agreement. They didn't rent the winery to us; they
said, "Use it; put some concrete on the ground, bring in the
electricity and water, and you can use it for several years."
We used it until '76, and it gave us the opportunity to work on
the architecture of this winery buying tanks, preparing
everything perfectly. It was very nice.
A very funny thing: there was no cellar. Where to put the
bottles? We ended up with 200,000 bottles on the second floor.
Some people from ray company came and I said, "Shall we go to the
cellar?" Where could I mean? They said, "Where is your
cellar?" I said, "On the first floor."
Maudiere: Yes, that's what we call the first floor [in Europe].
Hicke: I bet they were really shocked.
Maudiere: Oh, yes. We had air conditioning, the temperature was perfect- -
ten degrees Celsius night and day.
These [offering a grape to taste] are the Pinot noirs.
Sweet and good.
Hicke: They're wonderful.
Maudiere: I'm going to talk again about Trefethen. In Champagne we pick
grapes by hand, like those [Pinot noir grapes] have been picked
by hand. At Trefethen they had the first harvester machine, so
we experimented with machine picking. I was not very satisfied
by the juice, which was pink colored. In Champagne, when we
have a hot year we pick very early in the morning, between five
a.m. and ten a.m., and then we stop. When the grapes are cold,
the cells of the skin don't open, so the color stays in the skin
and the juice is not colored. So I said we should try picking
the grapes at night, and so we [here] were the first to pick by
machine at night. Since then we have been picking at night.
Hicke: And now everybody is doing it.
Maudiere: And now everybody does it.
Hicke: That's quite an important innovation.
Maudiere: That was the first time that machine harvesting was done at
night.. We wait for the right temperature, and then we start the
Hicke: Do you have to have lights?
Maudiere: Yes, and we have a machine driver, an assistant, a tractor
driver- -there are four people working with the machine, and
that's it. Again, that's due to the help of Trefethen. They
have been very important in our development.
Hicke: I wanted to ask you about the Very Large Machine [VLM] , too, and
the riddling. I know that Moet & Chandon didn't think that
large amounts of riddling could be handled here.
Maudiere: In Champagne people used small machines- -small compared to very
large ones. We tried the same machines, and I wasn't satisfied
at all, because the smaller machines work very slowly. They
have an electric motor which, when it stops, takes time, because
it's a heavy load of five hundred bottles. At the end of an
axle, that's a heavy load. I said it was too slow. You know,
when you riddle a bottle, the hand is giving a great thrust, a
quarter of a turn, and stops the bottle. I compare it to a
glass of water with powdered sugar. When you turn the glass
slowly, the sugar follows the glass; if you turn it fast, the
sugar stays in the same position. In riddling it's the same
thing. If you turn it fast- -that's why the riddler goes very
fast. They turn, and they stop the bottle. The sediment stays
in the same position, but the bottle [itself] turns around the
sediment. That's what makes the sediment slide in the glass,
[see explanation on page 138a]
Hicke: So you don't mix up the sediment?
Maudiere: No, you don't mix up the sediment. With the small machines, the
movement was too slow, just like turning the glass of water with
sugar [slowly] makes the sugar turn with the glass. So I have
been adding- -compensating for this inconvenience- -bentonite , but
the bentonite has an effect on foam- -on the ring [at the top of
the glass of sparkling wine after it's poured]. So I said, "No,
we should find a way to do exactly what the hand does."
The vice president of production here was a former
aeronautic engineer, and I asked him if there was a way. He
said there was a way to send an electric current in the other
direction, and we stopped the [turn], but we broke the machines.
We broke several French machines; the axle was broken, and it
was five hundred dollars every time. I said, "Now what do we
do? We should have a perfect gyroscope."
He worked several months , and he came back one morning and
said, "I have an idea. If you want to have a perfect gyroscope,
you have to put more than five hundred bottles [in a machine].
What do you think of several bins?" I said, "Ooh, that's big,"
because it would be a minimum of eight bins, and that's four
thousand bottles. He agreed it was big. It gave birth to the
VLMs , which are perfect, which have precisely the same effect as
the hand. What we have done is send an electric current, not
only to stop but to go the other way. It can be fifty times a
second. It's even more efficient than by hand.
Weren't you afraid to try that many bottles the first time?
You can handle it with
No, because it was so well balanced,
your hands- -four thousand bottles.
Really. And you didn't lose any?
No, we didn't lose any, and we didn't have to use bentonite in
the bottle. I don't like to use any addition in a wine; I want
to keep the wine pure, 100 percent wine. You have to
concentrate a little more during the harvest, taking care of the
grapes, knowing what they are going to do, how they can ferment,
what kind of wine they will make; and using different
temperatures- -settling longer or at different temperatures. [If
you do these things] you can handle the wine without using
additions of chemicals, [which is important] especially now, as
people are very aware of elements of the wine. They have to be
very pure. You have to concentrate on the handling of the
grapes every year for fifteen days or three weeks during the
harvest, but it pays.
Are these machines in use anywhere else?
Yes, I think so, because there is no patent.
That's too bad.
Well, I think if it can help others--.
That's very generous.
I think we have to share our knowledge. We have no secrets.
Even competitors have free access to everything. It's the best
way. You don't progress if you are alone; you have to exchange
and to listen to what the others say. You can have trouble,
[and if you are] using the same machines, they can tell you all
their troubles; we talk and exchange, and we progress, all of
When I came here to the valley, I visited all of the
wineries and the few sparkling wine wineries, and I consulted
[made suggestions for] them. They said, "Why are you consulting
[for] us? And you don't even ask for money." I said, "Because
if you produce bad sparkling wine, it will be a bad Napa Valley
sparkling wine. Nobody will say it's a specific winery name,
but all of us will suffer." They said, "Oh, that's a different
approach." They had never heard that before. I have become
very good friends with my colleagues in other wineries because I
was giving them advice on the way they were making wine or
handling their bottles or riddling them.
I think you've brought not only sparkling wine but a very
helpful philosophy to the valley.
Hicke: I know you were responsible for all of the equipment as well as
the architecture here at Domaine Chandon. What other equipment
did you bring in?
Maudiere: There was no special equipment. Most of it was equipment that
we have been using in Champagne for years. What I brought here
was a different conception of winemaking, first of all. We are
not in Champagne, where we are protected by the appellation
contrdlee. Here there is no appellation. We are free to do
anything. In Champagne you are surrounded by so many laws on
everything- -on planting, the type of rootstock, the number of
vines per acre, the crop per hectare, the pressing. Here we are
I said, "This is a very good thing." It's what I would
like to have in Champagne. It's the possibility of changing
every year, because years are never the same. Grapes are
juicier or drier, or they have thicker skins or more color. So
instead of judging by the weight and extracting 66.66 percent- -
you put one metric ton on the press and extract 66.66 liters --
with no chance whatever [to vary that] from year to year. But
here, if [the grapes] are juicierwe have what we call the
"free run." You press very carefully, with very light pressure,
and extract the "free run." You can extract in Champagne 50
percent in the first extraction. Here, depending on the year,
we extract 40 percent, 45 percent, 52 percent. We are able to
control everything with precision. For example, what I have
done here- -I wanted to do it in Champagne, but I had no right to
do it, so here I have done it with great success.
We have sold what we call the taille, the press wine. We
press roughly 50 percent or 45, 48 percent. We extract then
2 percent, which is called the first press, or the premiere
taille in French. We don't extract the rest of the wine on
sparkling wine presses; we extract the rest of the juice on a
continuous press, and we sell the juice in bulk. So we have no
waste of the same juice, which is less good than "free run,"
which is being used in a blend. No waste. You see the tank
trucks every day here.
They're taking the bulk?
Yes, taking the bulk juice at the end of the pressing,
happy to be here, with this way of doing it.
I 'm so
In Champagne do you make a different style or kind of wine for
export than you do for local consumption?
No, not at Moet. Some do, but we don't. It is the same cuv6e,
so you can find the same brut imperial vintage in the French
market, in the German market, in the Swiss market, in the
English market, in the American market, or in the Japanese
How do you differentiate the French Moet & Chandon Champagne
from the Domaine Chandon sparkling wine for marketing?
First of all, they don't taste the same. Also, I was aware from
the very beginning--! told you I did not want to make a copy of
Moet. There is a possibility of making a copy, but an imitation
is always an imitation. So all the qualities of Napa made a
different product. I insisted that all the blends that I've
made up to now have a different characteristicwith Napa really
showing in the cuvee .
So you really set out to make a Napa Valley wine.
Yes, two different products. I have friends in San Francisco
who have both cuvees, and they don't use the Moet at the same
time- -for the same purposes --as Domaine Chandon. So we are not
competitors. First of all, there is a price difference, which
is very important. We sell Domaine Chandon for about thirteen
dollars a bottle, and Moet is sold for thirty dollars.
If I had made an imitation, the imitation could have been
better than the Moet, so we would have sold Domaine Chandon and
no Moet. The other way around, it could have been, "Oh, that's
a poor imitation of Moet." People recognize that Domaine
Chandon is very good and Moet is good, but for different
occasions. They are two different wines. Another thing: I
made a Blanc de Noirs, which is not made in Champagne.
Hicke: Oh, really?
Maudiere: Well, some do. After coming to Napa, they discovered the Blanc
de Noirs. [laughs] It was 100 percent Pinot noir when I made
it for the first time and had some of what we called blush. It
was the first use of the word "blush" for wine. Now it's highly
There was what we call an oeil de perdrix [eye of the
partridge- -pink] , In Champagne, when the Pinot noir cuvee is
slightly pink or amber, we call it an oeil. I don't know where
that comes from. When I made the first Blanc de Noirs, we had a
visit from the president of Moet, and I wanted him to taste the
still wine- -the cuvee- -ready to be bottled. He said, "Oh, it's
an oeil." I said I did it because I liked the color, and he
said, "You're not going to sell one bottle in the American
market. They don't like pink wine." I said, "This is not pink
wine." John Wright was there, and I said, "Anyway, you are not
here to give me your consent. You sent me to Napa to produce
something-- " I'm very specific with him. So he said, "Okay,
okay." [laughter] John Wright later said, "Oh, you were so
strong." And since then, it has been a success, you know- -Blanc
de Noirs, especially with people coming from Champagne.
Maudiere: I was saying that it has been a success. We started with it
being 10 percent of our sales, then it became 20 percent, 30 and
35 percent. People from Champagne come here and buy cases of
Blanc de Noirs. I was very proud of our innovation.
Hicke: Indeed, to get people from Champagne to come here and take it
The Very Large Machines: Riddling
Maudiere: I want to go to the VLMs . [tape off while walking through the
winery to the riddling machine area]
Hicke: How many of these VLMs do you have?
Maudiere: Thirty- two. We could riddle eight million bottles a year.
Hicke: How many do you do?
Maudiere: A little more than five million.
Hicke: That's a lot.
Maudiere: It is a lot.
That [indicates] is the machine. [demonstrates that it can
be moved easily by hand because of the delicate balance]. It's
connected to the tension. A little less than four thousand
bottles, because the bins are not precisely four thousand. Ah,
the numbers are here [looking at posted numbers]. It's 3,840
bottles in each.
Hicke: It's all done by computer?
Maudiere: Yes. [reads from computer printout] We are on program number
twelve. It's the same cuvee. This one was step number seven;
this one was step number eighteen. Step number eighteen has
been loaded the same day. The angle, twelve, and the time. So
we know that it was 8:32.6. Anyone can start at any time.
Several times a day- -normally two times, sometimes three times a
day- -it shakes, turns, shakes, and gives the angle.
Hicke: It's just programmed to do that automatically?
Maudiere: Yes, automatically. Every week we do 160,280 bottles. I said
thirty- two, but it's forty -two VLMs now.
Hicke: What kind of maintenance is required?
Maudiere: Nothing. No maintenance. It's greased once a year. Two small
engines, each the same size and same power as the small, five-
This is the motor, one of them.
Hicke: Oh, it's tiny. It looks about the size of a motorboat.
Maudiere: Yes, and the other one is even smaller. It's in the back.
[walks around to the back] . Here is the second motor in the
Hicke: It is even smaller. That's amazing.
Maudiere: It works perfectly. [speaking to riddler] Do you have a bottle
of sur lattest
Riddler: You want a bottle before we put it in the machines?
Maudiere: This one, just at the beginning. It has been riddled four or
five times already.
Hicke: So each one of these [VLMs] has eight cases?
Hicke: Full of how many bottles?
Maudiere: Normally it's less than five hundred.
Riddler: Four hundred and eighty bottles for each box.
Maudiere: So multiplied by eight, it's 3,840.
This is the yeast. See that? Dead yeast. When you shake
the bottle, that's what happens. [holding up bottle,
demonstrates the effect of riddling on the yeast, which slides
into the neck of the bottle] Due to the b ay anus , it slides very
Hicke: It's going right down into the neck.
Maudiere: I'm not doing it very well because I'm going too fast, but
that's what happens. At the same time it swings, turns, and is
balanced, so the sediment is sliding without leaving those
yeasts that are left behind. It's perfectly clear.
Hicke: So the turn cleans one side of the bottle, and the shaking gets
Do the bottles make any difference- -the color?
The color doesn't make a difference at that stage. It makes a
difference later on when the bottles are behind the window in
the sun. You know, champagne or sparkling wine or white wines
suffer from infra-red and u.v. [ultra-violet] rays. That's why
we have green bottles, and most of them now have minerals in the
glassmaking which filter u.v. and infra-red light rays.
What matters here is that if the bottle is not correctly
made, you have a kind of orange skin inside. If you have an
orange skin, the sediment doesn't slide as well. And we have an
"ouch" ! We have been fighting with the glass makers to make it
really clean inside the bottles.
So that's a problem?
No more, but it could happen any day.
So you have to inspect the bottles?
We have to inspect the bottles before bottling.
No, not each bottle; each shipment. A quality-control
laboratory checks the bottles. If you bottle in a bad bottle,
you discover it's a bad bottle three years later when the
bottles are on the riddling racks or on the shelf.
Do the bottles ever break in there?
Less and less,
in the bins?
asks riddler] Do you discover broken bottles
Hardly ever. It used to be a problem, but now the quality of
the glass has been a lot better. The quality-control lab keep
on top of the glass quality all the time. They make sure
they're getting good quality glass, and the minute they spot
something inside of a bottle, they hold that batch of shipment.
We return the whole shipment if one bottle is imperfect.
Yes, because there is a danger of blowing the bottle when you
open it or something, so it has to be a very, very good quality,
as far as the glass itself is concerned. That includes the
other parts, like the cap and the bidules, when they're in the
second fermentation. From here they go to the disgorging line
and they get the cork, labels, and the little wire caps and
everything that goes with it.
Another thing is, the bottle doesn't go through a lot of
abuse, even though it's good quality glass and we trust it and
handle it all the time. It's really good. In fact, I've seen
cases where you get a bend where maybe the wood is warped like
this [points out warped case]. We set it down, and maybe a
bottle will slide out. It might fall from here [demonstrates]
to here, and it won't blow up. It will just roll around. It
shakes up the wine a little bit, but the bottle is good; it's
And we have more than six bars- -six atmospheres- - [multiplies] at
10 Celsius (50 F.) it's more than 7.3 atmospheres at the
temperature of the riddling room.
at 60 F.
That's 90 psi. Ninety at 10 Celsius, and a hundred
Who makes the bottles?
Owens-Illinois and a glass factory in Merced.
There's one in Oakland; that's Owens-Illinois. They make most
of it. Every now and then they can't keep up because of the
demand, so they go to another source, which is Merced.
We like to buy from two different glass factories. If anything
happens to one factory--. I remember when we used to buy
bottles from a Canadian glass factory, and one day they went on
strike. We went two months without receiving one bottle, and we
It's good to have two different sources, as far as getting
Okay, shall we go?
See you later.
That was great. Thanks a lot.
Can bottles ever be recycled?
Maudiere: No. If you recycle the bottles, they get mixed with [bottles
from] different glass factories. Sometimes they don't have the
same diameter, sometimes they don't have the same height, and we
have a problem at the level of the lines. And they don't have
the same strength; if they have been used once, we get high
breakage. We don't recycle.
Hicke: It's not worth it?
Hicke: [looking at the area of handriddled bottles] These are riddled
by hand here?
Maudiere: They are riddled by hand. I like to keep a few bottles riddled
by hand due to the risk of earthquake. If we had an earthquake,
and we only had the bottles on the big VLMs , we would be out of
business. [The VLMs are balanced so delicately that an
earthquake would cause great damage . ]
Hicke: Is this the Reserve?
Maudiere: No, it's the same cuvee, same blend. We keep three people
riddling, so if anything happens they are able to continue
riddling by hand.
Hicke: How many are riddled by hand?
Maudiere: Oh, twenty or thirty thousand bottles. But instead of taking
eight days on the VLMs, it takes three weeks on the riddling
racks. It's riddled once a day here, and the VLMs can riddle
two or three times a day, depending on the cuvee.
Hicke: Can you taste any difference if they're riddled by hand?
Maudiere: No. Oh, this [referring to old riddling machine] is the one
which used to break. The axle, which is here, used to break.
Hicke: So that's just for looks now- -an artifact? [laughs]
Maudiere: Yes. We don't take visitors to the VLMs.
Those [points to rack] are finished. We start with the
bottles flat. Here, the bottles are flat [i.e., horizontal].
When the riddler riddles the bottles, he shakes them and lifts
them [so that they are tipped slightly more with the neck
Hicke: So they're a little more tipped each time they're riddled?
Maudiere: Yes. And they are balanced and then finished in that vertical,
Hicke: But the riddler has to know exactly how to do that.
Maudiere: Yes, he takes a candle. Normally the best way for checking the
progression of the sediment is to take a candle, one bottle, and
he goes [makes banging sound]. This is what he does. With the
shock, the sediment slides.
Hicke: Helps get the sediment down.
Maudiere: Normally we riddle fifty thousand bottles a day.
Maudiere: Yes. There are sixty bottles here, and you see the speed at
which it goes. [demonstrates the riddling process]
Hicke: Oh, yes. How long at a time can you do that?
Maudiere: You can do that eight hours a day. It's not tiring at all.
[continues to riddle] That's it; sixty bottles have been done in
Hicke: Well, I can see that it can be done.
Maudiere: I've done this since I was little. I remember my father said,
"If you want to have a vacation with us, you have to work every
year." First year in the laboratory; second year with the
barrels, which we still had then; and then in the riddling area
with the riddlers. So I have done everything. My father said
[at the end of the summer], "Okay, a good report, so you can
come with us." [laughter]
Hicke: Where did you go on your vacations?
Maudiere: We used to go to the Cote d'Azur.
Use of a Candle by che Riddler
Maudiere: The riddler still uses a candle to check the turbidity of the
Champagne in the bottle. He uses what is called the Tyndall
He takes a bottle upside down between a lighted candle
and his eyes. He puts his left hand around the bottle
approximately one -third of an inch between his fingers to let
rays of light penetrate the wine under some angle. His fingers
produce a dark background (shadow) on which the particles
lighted by the candle's weak light appear. Under a stronger
electric bulb light they don't appear. That is why the
riddlers still use a candle light.
The examining has to be done in a dark room.
Maudiere: We should go to the Visitor Center and taste three bottles in
front of us. Do you want to taste?
Hicke : Sure .
Maudiere: [walking to Visitor Center; points to grapevines next to winery]
These are planted here to show visitors the way we prune
Champagne vines, the way we plant in Champagne- -the rows, and
the same height. Three varieties are here.
Hicke: Is there something different about the terracing?
Maudiere: Oh, yes. In Champagne this is the way we plant and prune. This
is Pinot noir.
Hicke: Can I try one?
Maudiere: Oh, yes, please. This is Chardonnay- -a little less acid. One
Chardonnay is 12 grams of acidity per liter, the Pinot blanc is
10.5. That's close, but you can taste the difference.
Hicke: [sitting at a table in the Visitor Center] While we're waiting,
let me ask you how the wines have changed over the years since
you started here.
Maudiere: First of all, there is a natural reason: the vines have aged,
and the best wines come from older vineyards.
[to a staffperson] I'd like to have three glasses and the
Blanc de Noirs, Brut, and a Reserve. I'd like you to leave the
three bottles on the table.
Again, it's like a fruit tree; the best fruit comes from
older trees. For the same reason there's less production,
better concentration. When we bought the first grapes, most of
the vineyards had been planted between '68 for the first ones to
'70. We bought in '73, so they were not yet at their best.
I have a good example, which is Dom Perignon. Dom Perignon
comes from an average of thi rty- five-year-old vineyards, and
some of them are more than fifty years old. Normally people
replant their vineyards when they are twenty or twenty- five
So it means you have a better concentration. You lose some
crop, because instead of harvesting five tons per acre, you have
three tons per acre; but what quality. That's why I think the
first change has been due to the aging vines.
The second one has come from more complexity. When you
produce a larger number of bottles, you need more grapes. So
you buy from more vineyards in different spots, and it becomes
more and more complex. That's the second reason why the wines
The third one is because after a few years we knew more and
more. We never totally know, but we knew more and more about
different vineyards and about the blends --how they age, what was
the limit of using such and such instead of another. So the
third reason is experience.
The fourth r-eason was the evolution of the taste of the
Hicke: A little education going on?
Maudiere: Twenty years ago Americans were not used to drinking sparkling
wine as much as they do now, and they didn't have the same
taste. They liked sweeter sparkling wines. I don't know if
they liked it, but they used to buy tasteless sparkling wines.
I don't know if it was the fashion or the production that
imposed that kind of wines, but they were colorless, tasteless,
Hicke: That's why I never liked champagne, as we called it.
Maudiere: Now they have discovered sparkling wine which has beautiful
bubbles, tiny bubbles. At the time, most [sparkling wines] had
big bubbles, what we called "toads' eyes" in Champagne,
[laughter] It's a funny description, but that's what we said:
"Oh, that's a toads' eye wine, with big, slow (blop, blop)
bubbles . "
Another improvement I brought here was making tiny, fast
bubbles. They're beautiful
Hicke: How do you make the tinier bubbles?
Maudiere: I said I don't like to use chemicals in winemaking. So I did it
just by saving all the proteins. In beer it's the same thing.
Hicke: So it's the yeast, and not using bentonite, and all those
Maudiere: We don't use bentonite, so the crown stays on the top. Look at
that [referring to glass of sparkling wine poured at their
Hicke: It's really beautiful.
Maudiere: What I brought, too, was the color. As I said, twenty years ago
most of the sparkling wines were colorless, but it was not
natural. This [glass before us] is the Blanc de Noirs, the one
which is made of 100 percent black grapes. It used to be
100 percent Pinot noir, and this one is 95 percent Pinot noir
and 5 percent Pinot Meunier.
Hicke: Oh, yes, it does have a little blush, although you can't see it
because of the blue tablecloth. Did that first one that you
made have more blush?
Maudiere: Yes. That's why we called it Blanc de Noirs.
Hicke: Is that eye of partridge?
Maudiere: Yes, that's what it's called in still wines and sparkling wines
in France, but it's not really eye of partridge; eye of
partridge is darker than that. We call it Blanc de Noirs
because it can vary; there are some variations year after year.
It can be slightly darker, but I think this is the lightest
color we've ever had.
Hicke: Just a delicate tinge.
Maudiere: That's what Champagne was thirty or forty years ago. The
Champagne color was precisely that color, and now Champagne is
more like this, because we use more and more Chardonnay.
Hicke: There's almost no blush in this one.
Maudiere: The color is a bit greener; slightly light golden, even on the
green side, because the Chardonnay has a green skin, and the
flesh is more green than yellow.
Hicke: Which one is this one?
Maudiere: This is the same cuvee , the same blend as the middle one, but
it's kept five years in the cellar, so it gets darker with age.
Oh, yes, it has much more color,
shade, not of color.
But it's just a difference of
The pigments get darker and darker. If you keep a bottle of
Champagne twenty years in your cellar, it becomes very dark
gold. It's still clear, but it gets darker.
Maudiere: What I do first with any wine, I smell it. I put my nose in the
glass. In sparkling wine I like to find a delicate fruitiness.
It doesn't have to be neutral; it has to be delicate- -a very
good delicacy but with fruit. For example, if you smell [these
three glasses], they have different noses. This first one is
more like today. [sniffs the air] Oh, tobacco; somebody is
Hicke: Shall we move?
Maudiere: No, I can concentrate. Have you ever been in a vineyard at the
time when it's flowering? It's so powerful, and it's so good.
I find in this Pinot noir at the same time the vine flower and
black current. The second is more floral. It's not vine
flower, but floral--! don't know which flower- -and maybe some
honey. At the same time, it's a very delicate. I like the nose
of this one.
This one has a funny smell, like coffee- -coffee and
Hicke: I catch that coffee, but I would not have been able to identify
Maudiere: I try to find something to put a name on my feeling. It's not
precisely coffee; it's a kind of coffee. When I taste the base
wines --in Epernay I tasted forty or fifty wines every morning in
all seasons. I tried to put an image on each wine so I could
keep them in memory. There's no way for writing what you feel,
so you -have to think, "This one is for me more like (in Epernay)
a black current bush."
Hicke: So you have a picture image?
Maudiere: I have a picture, yes. You can't taste fast. I mean, your
first impression is the good one; you never come again to taste
the same one when you prepare a cuvee . It takes half an hour or
C : ANDON
forty- five minutes, and it's done. You can test in a different
order two days later, and you still have the image, the picture,
in your mind, and you recognize them like you recognize a human.
Some of them are more neutral, and you have to test them several
times; I mean, in a week you test them two or three times. It's
just like humans; you can meet a human several times and you
still don't remember him.
Hicke: Only these are much harder to remember.
Maudiere: No; it's my job. It's not harder. When you are specialized in
one thing, you can recognize it easily. You don't have to spend
time; you can recognize the color- - [greets a staff member]
The Blanc de Noirs is the best example of a fruity
sparkling wine. That's why the people in Champagne love it.
They say, "It's just like the wine we used to make twenty -five
or thirty years ago," because of the climate, because of the
crops, which are not too heavy, because of the Pinot noir, which
is just like the old Pinot noir. So that's why they like it.
It's fruity. It is Pinot noir; you can recognize it, even in a
The other one [referring to glasses before them] is more
complex. It touches all the taste buds at the same time; it
fills your mouth everywhere. It's not hollow. It has good
acidity, a very good balance, a long finish- - longer than the
Pinot noir, which is slightly simpler.
The last one is the same blend- -
Hicke: This is the Reserve?
Maudiere: Yes. We have in those two blends approximately 65 percent Pinot
noir, 20 percent Chardonnay, 12 percent Pinot blanc, and the
rest is Pinot Meunier; that's the new addition.
Hicke: Is this the Brut?
Maudiere: Yes. That's another reason for the evolution of the taste of
Doraaine Chandon: small and more complex along the years. This
one [referring to glass] is the same blend without the Pinot
Hicke: What does the Pinot Meunier do?
Maudiere: Maybe you can smell it. It brings the hot bread, or brioche,
nose. Sometimes people say, "Ah, it's yeasty." It's not
yeasty; it's the Pinot Meunier which brings that. When you go
early [in the morning?] to a boulangerie [bakery] in France, you
smell hot bread, and that's what the Pinot Meunier brings. Hot
We have only had 5 percent available, but two years ago we
had 7 percent, and last year 12 percent. So we are increasing
the percentage of Pinot Meunier in the blends. There's a change
without shocking the customers. You have to recognize our style
and say, "Ah, it's always good." Because the customer says it's
good if it's better. [laughter] In their subconscience they
find the same pleasure of drinking the wine if it has been
improved every year.
Hicke: But still a certain amount of consistency?
Maudiere: Yes, you have to keep the same consistency. If you don't change
what you do, in a very light way, people get used to the same
product, and they get tired. That's my role, to change the
product enough but not too much.
Hicke: So it's still recognizable as Domaine Chandon?
[tasting] It's rounder. You can feel the edge, but [at
the same time] it's so smooth.
So this is what I'm doing.
Hicke: Thank you so much for this interview; you've given us a great
deal of information about the wine industry, sparkling wine, and
TAPE GUIDE- -John H. Wright
Interview 1: April 10, 1991 1
tape 1, side a 1
tape 1, side b 12
tape 2, side a 22
tape 2, side b 33
tape 3, side a 43
tape 3, side b 52
tape 4, side a 63
tape 4, side b 73
Interview 2: May 6, 1991 81
tape 5, side a 81
tape 5, side b 90
tape 6, side a 98
tape 6, side b 107
INTERVIEW WITH EDMOND MAUDIERE
Date of Interview: September 11, 1991 116
tape 1, side a 116
tape 1, side b 125
tape 2, side a 132
tape 2, side b 142
INDEX- -John H. Wright and Edmond Maudiere
Almaden Vineyards , 94
American Viscose Company, 1, 4-7, 9
cellophane production, 4-6
market research & development,
radiated food, 7
anti-alcohol forces, 113-115
appellation contrdlee laws, 22, 43-
44, 57, 117, 130-131
Arthur D. Little, Inc., 7-14, 22-
market research and development,
and packaging industry, 7-8, 11-
12, 22, 23
Austin, John, 42, 52
Baker, Peter, 7
Baldini, Anthony, 45, 62, 63
Bank of America, loan to Domaine
Banque Nationale de Paris, 29, 31
Benard, Yves, 51-52
Bernstein, Arlene, 17
Bernstein, Michael, 17
Bomba, Tex, 45-46
Boordy Vineyard, 10
Bower, Keith, 16, 75
Buena Vista Winery, 18
Carneros, vineyards, 18-21, 41-42,
50, 71, 74-77, 103, 105, 106, 126
drip irrigation and yields, 18-
appellation contrdlee laws 22,
43-44, 57, 117, 130-131
bottle types, 135
characteristics of, 76-77, 141-
chemistry of, 79-80, 109-110
consumer tastes for, 32, 43, 99,
107-108, 114, 140
Dom Perignon, 58, 65, 92, 139
grapes, 8, 38, 60, 75-78, 119,
125, 130, 141
economics of, 51-53, 82, 114
equipment, 71, 72, 79, 87-89,
122, 128, 130
export of, 43-44, 58, 100, 131
marketing of, 36, 43, 56-57, 84
pricing of, 59-60
soil, importance of, 20-21, 75,
vs. sparkling wine, 32, 54-56,
58, 65, 84-85, 108-110, 118-
119, 125, 127, 131-132, 139,
technology, 66, 68, 70, 72-73
tax on, 117
viticulture, 74, 127, 139
see also Moet & Chandon;
Chandon, Fred, 89
Chandon Club, 93-94
Charmat process, 68-69
Chevalier, Alain, 32-33, 34-35, 42,
43, 52, 55, 57, 68-69, 89, 93-
Christian Brothers winery, 38
Ciocca, Arthur A. , 103
Classic Methods/Classic Varieties
climate, importance of, 21-22, 38,
41, 71, 81, 105-106, 118-119,
125, 127, 143
Clos du Val winery, 81
Corbett Canyon Vineyards, 103-104
Corti, Darrell, 26
Coulon, Philippe, 48, 99
Davies, Jack, 85
d'Halluin, Michel, 29, 31, 32, 33-
Domaine Chandon, 8, 41ff
buying Shadow Creek wine label,
chemicals in wine, 128-129, 140-
designing and building of winery,
early winemaking, 62-64
equipment development, 66, 68-
73, 77-80, 85-89, 123-123,
128-129, 130-131, 133-138
horizontal, 70, 123-124
presses, 72-73, 79-80, 130-
riddlers, 85-89, 128-129,
Very Large Machines, 85-
bottle types, 135-137
fermentation process, 70, 77-
as French business opportunity,
French financial support, 50-52
grape varieties, 20, 21, 46-50,
quality of mountain vines,
grapes, buying from Trefethen,
marketing strategies, 54-61, 69,
81-82, 85, 90-98, 107-111
Chandon Club, 93-94
Varieties Society, 107-
direct marketing, 93, 94
Domaine Chandon, marketing
exports, 94, 96-100
public relations, 81-85, 92,
Visitors' Center, 81-82,
84-85, 92, 139
sales outside California, 94
characteristics of, 76-77,
80-81, 89, 107-110, 140-
evolution of, 139-143
market, 32-33, 40
methode champenoise, 32, 36,
see also sparkling wine;
tax on, 52-3
viticulture, 71-72, 74-76, 105-
canopy management, 74-75,
grafting techniques, 75
harvesting techniques, 71-72
pruning techniques , 72
Carneros, 41-42, 50, 71, 74-
77, 103, 105, 106, 126
Dos Rios, 126
Mt. Veeder, 20, 41-42, 50,
Yountville, 48, 76, 126
winemaking at Trefethen, 45-48,
62-63, 66, 89, 126-127
Blanc de Noirs, 64, 77, 98,
132, 139, 141, 143
Domaine Chandon, wines (cont)
Brut, 64, 77, 139, 143
Fred's Friends, 89-90
Reserve, 139, 143
de la Serre, Guy, 31
De Luca, John, 111
de Polignac, Guy, 39
de Vogue, Count Ghislaine, 36
de Vogue, Ghislaine (Mrs. Robert
Jean) , 35
de Vogue , Robert Jean, 17, 35,
37, 39, 42-43, 45-46, 57, 66,
di Rosa, Rene, 18
Dillon, Read & Co., Inc., 34
Domaine Carneros, 56
Dripeze irrigation, 19
Drucker, Peter, 115
Dyer, Dawnine , 64, 65
East Side Winery, 11
Eisley, Barbara, 45
Eisley, Milton, 45
Finnigan, Robert, 108-109
FMC Corporation, 5
Franzia wine, 103
Gallo, E & J, Winery, 112
Gavin, James, 13-14
Geoffrey, Richard, 65-66, 99
Giles, Kim, 48
Gomberg, Louis R. , 28-29
Grahm, Randall, 90
Hanzell Vineyard, 48
Harrison, Stuart, 94, 96
Hart, Jack, 51
Haskell, John, 34
Hennessy, Kilian, 42
Hennessy, Schieffelin & Company,
Hiram Walker Distillers, 113
Howe , Pat , 64
Hunsinger, Jim, 103
Inglenook Napa Valley winery, 46
International Paper Company, 23-24
Iron Horse Vineyards, 113
irrigation techniques, 15, 16, 18-
Jeanty, Philippe, 83-84
Kahlua, John, 88
Korbel & Bros., F. , winery, 32-33,
40, 86-87, 103
Korbel wines, 59
Kornell, Hanns , Champagne Cellars,
Lider, Jim, 16
Louis Vuitton Moe t -Hennessy , 31,
Lyncrest Vineyards, 15, 120
Lynn, Dick, 14-15
M & H Ventures, 52
M & H Vineyards, 52
Marne et Champagne company, 73
Marston, Michael, 15
Marston Vineyards, 15
Martini, Louis P., 38, 40
Maudiere, Edmond, 49-51, 62, 64-
68, 70, 116-144
and Domaine Chandon,
building winery, 121-123
choosing grape varieties,
early years, 116-117, 138
at Moet & Chandon, 116-117
philosophy of winemaking, 129
Mayacamas Vineyards , 38
McGrew, Herb, 15-16
McKinsey consulting company, 23
Menasco, Al , 14-15
Mercier, 49, 58, 66, 67, 70, 116,
Mercier family, 31
methode champenoise , 32, 69-70, 109
Mirassou Vineyards, 38
Moet & Chandon 17, 33, 35, 36, 43-
44, 48, 55, 57-60, 65-67, 69, 70,
73, 83, 91-92, 94-97, 99-100,
109, 116-117, 122, 128, 131-132
in Argentina, 65
Australian wines, interest in,
choosing John Wright, 33
and Domaine Chandon, starting up,
33, 48 49, 55, 69, 83, 94-97,
French restrictions on, 43-44
merger with Mercier, 49, 66-67,
and vin du speculation, 57-58
wine style, 109, 131-132
winemaking style, 73
Moet-Hennessy, 31-40, 50-52, 95.
See also Moet & Chandon
Mondavi, Robert, 25, 27-28, 38, 80,
Morrison & Foerster, 42, 52
Mount joy, Bob, 67
Mount j oy , Danny , 6 7
Mt. Veeder Vineyards, 48
Mt. Veeder Winery, 17
Mumm Napa Valley, 56, 60
Mure, Bertrand, 32, 33, 55
Nechutnys, Udo, 83-84
Owens-Illinois glass company, 136
Pate, Susan, 92
Paul Roget 109
Pernod Ricard, 31
phylloxera, 31, 75-76
Pickle Canyon Vineyards, 16, 18
Piper Heidsieck, 87
Poirier, Francoise, 38, 39
Poirier, Renaud, 37-40, 41, 43, 46,
48-50, 64, 68-69
Pommery & Greno, 39
riddling, 69-70, 85-89, 121, 128-
Ridgeway, Bob, 6
Robert Mondavi Winery, 94, 112
Opus One , 94
Rockrise Odermatt Mountjoy
Associates (ROMA), 67-68
Rodeno, Greg, 102
Rodeno, Michaela, 89, 102
Sal in du Midi company, 32
San Francisco Wine Fair, 110
Shieffelin & Company 45,
Schieffelin-Somerset, 52, 60
Schramsburg Vineyards, 85
Shadow Creek winery, 103-104
Sichel, Peter, 4
Sichel Sohne company, 4
Sick's Rainer Brewing company, 28
Simi Winery, 51
soil, importance of in grape
growing, 17, 19-22, 32, 74-75, 106,
Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, 107
sparkling wine ,
21-22, 32, 43-
44, 54-57, 84-85, 108-110,
118-119, 125, 127, 130-132,
vs . Champagne
sparkling wine (cont)
characteristics of, 38-39, 76-
77, 80-81, 89, 107-111, 140-
chemistry of, 38, 77-80, 120-
121, 128, 141
consumer tastes for, 27, 32, 82-
85, 91, 93, 99-100, 107-108,
economics of, 52-53, 61, 82,
equipment, 53-54, 66, 68-73, 77-
80, 85-89, 130-131, 123-124,
future of, 113-115
grapes, 20-21, 62, 76-77, 103-
106, 118, 125-126
marketing of, 40, 56-57, 69, 84,
89-93, 108, 113-115
methode champenoLse, 32, 69-70,
microbiology of, 120-121
tax on, 52-53, 81, 112
technology, 62, 68-70, 73, 77-
78, 89-90, 131
see also Champagne; Domaine
Sterling, Barry, 113
Sutter Home winery, 103, 112
Sylvania Industrial Corporation, 5.
See also American Viscose Company
Thompson, Michael, 113
Thuet, Joseph, 83
Travers, Robert, 38
Trefethen, Gene, 45-46
Trefethen, Janet, 47
Trefethen, John, 46-47, 125
Trefethen, Katie, 45-46
Trefethen Vineyards, 45-49, 62-63,
66, 89, 125-128
grapes sold to Domaine Chandon,
machine harvesting, 127-128
as winery for Domaine Chandon,
45-48, 62-63, 66, 89, 126-128
Tribune wine, 103
University of California at Davis,
viticulture experiments, 105
Vare , George, 103
Villa Trefethen, 46-47
Wagner, Philip, 10
wine, "blush," 132, 141
wine, "pop," 25, 27
wine & grape growing, Champagne vs
California, 21-22, 32, 43-44,
54-58, 65, 84-85, 108-110, 118-
119, 125, 127, 130, 139, 143
Wine Commission, 111, 113
The Wine Group, 103, 112
Wine Institute, 36, 111
wineries, small versus large, 111
Winery Lake Vineyard, 18
Wright, John, 1-115, 132
at Arthur D. Little, Inc., 7-
14, 22-30, 33-37, 42-43
in Brussels, 8, 10-14
California, transfer to, 14
with International Paper
Company in Brazil, 22-24
Wine America Study, 25-29,
grape growing in Napa Valley,
management style, 100-102
military service, 3-4
packaging industry, work in, 4-
wine and winemaking, early
interst in, 3, 9-11
vineyard purchases, 15-16
youth and education, 1-3
yeast, in sparkling wine 120-121
Zepponi, Gino, 87-88
Grapes mentioned in interview:
Adams , 9
Baco noir, 10
Cabernet, 14, 17, 42, 75, 106
Chardonnay, 17, 18, 20, 38, 42, 46-
47, 49-50, 60, 62, 64, 80, 99,
104, 106, 108, 120, 125, 139
Chenin blanc, 17
Colombard, 46, 49, 62, 64
Folle blanche, 46, 49-50, 120
Camay , 14
Camay Beaujolais, 17
Green Hungarian, 49
Grenache , 14
Merlot, 17, 18, 106
Pinot blanc, 14, 49-50, 62, 64,
119, 120, 139, 143
Pinot Meunier, 141, 143-144
Pinot noir, 14, 17, 38, 46-47, 49-
50, 60, 62, 64, 76, 77, 80, 99,
102, 104-106, 108, 120, 125, 127,
132, 139, 141-143
Riesling, 46, 49, 64
Sauvignon blanc , 49
Semillon, 46, 49
Seyve Villard, 10
St. Emilion, 40
St. George, 16 ,18
Ugni blanc, 40, 46, 49-50, 62, 120
Zinfandel, 10, 17, 18, 106
Chardonnay, 39, 40, 47, 49, 56, 76,
80, 90, 107, 108, 119
Cognac , 102
Folle Blanche, 40
Pineau de Charentes, 102
Pinot Noir, 39, 41, 48, 49, 76, 77,
Pinot Blanc, 49, 76
Vosne- Romance, 12
Wines mentioned in interview:
burgundy, 25, 106
Cabernet Sauvignon, 36, 48, 56, 108
Carole E. Hicke
B.A. , University of Iowa; economics
M.A. , San Francisco State University; U.S. history with emphasis on the
American West; thesis: "James Rolph, Mayor of San Francisco."
Interviewer/editor/writer, 1978-present , for business and law firm
histories, specializing in oral history techniques. Independently
Interviewer-editor, Regional Oral History Office, University of California,
Berkeley, 1985 to present, specializing in California legal, political, and
Author : Heller. Ehrman. White & McAuliffe: A Century of Service to Clients
and Community. 1991.
Editor (1980-1985) newsletters of two professional historical associations:
Western Association of Women Historians and Coordinating Committee for
Women in the Historical Profession.
Visiting lecturer, San Francisco State University in U.S. history, history
of California, history of Hawaii, legal oral history.